Why So Serious: When Funny Actors Go Mean

Comedians taking on dramatic roles isn’t anything new. Whether it’s Jim Carrey doing Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adam Sandler doing Punch Drunk Love or Whoopi Goldberg doing The Color Purple, funny actors have a long track record of trying to expand their horizons. That said, there’s a huge gap between playing a dramatic hero, and a dramatic villain.

In Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, Albert Brooks, best known for his years of stand-up comedy, guest appearances on The Simpsons, and movies like Broadcast News and Lost In America, plays one seriously bad son-of-a-bitch. A man you never want to owe a debt to, Brooks’ Bernie Rose is a cold, intimidating bastard who can even make Ron Perlman believably shake in his boots. It’s a rare feat for a comedic actor to tackle an antagonist, so we’ve decided to analyze some of our favorites. Check out our choices below and find out just what it is that makes these turns so effective.

Rodney Dangerfield In Natural Born Killers

by Sean O’Connell

Even serial killers have parents. That has been a topic of conversation lately as Lynne Ramsay’s psychological thriller We Need to Talk About Kevin - with Tilda Swinton as the mother of an eventual school shooter - makes the festival rounds. Yet any such discussion needs to start with Rodney Dangerfield’s unnerving turn as Mallory Knox’s pervy father, Ed Wilson, in Oliver Stone’s violent satire Natural Born Killers. Few would mistake Dangerfield for a “clean” comic, but his vile father figure took the Archie Bunker archetype to disturbing extremes, which Stone smartly countered with the canned laughter of a generic network sitcom. Dangerfield didn’t get laughs with Killers. His best work on film remains either Back to School or Caddyshack. But his against-type turn in Stone’s picture shows how brave filmmakers can use dangerous comics’ inherent strengths… if they dare.

Cameron Diaz In Vanilla Sky

by Kelly West

Introduced to us by The Mask, Cameron Diaz went on to do a series of roles, most of which had her playing the gorgeous, occasionally goofy blonde. She demonstrated her ability to handle a serious role in Any Given Sunday, and a scary-funny bridezilla-type in Very Bad Things, but her role as Julie in Vanilla Sky was a true demonstration of her dark side. Playing the ex-girlfriend of Tom Cruise’ character David in the film, we don’t quite realize just how damaged Julie is until she reveals it to David. Unwilling to fade into the background of his life as he falls for another woman, she takes him for a ride in her car and lets it all out. Gone is the sweet, good-natured Diaz we came to know and love in films like There’s Something about Mary and My Best Friend’s Wedding and in her place is an angry, hurt, unstable woman. Diaz’ performance in the car scene is so raw, it’s almost hard to watch, and yet you can’t look away.

Mo’nique In Precious

by Katey Rich

There are the villains who waltz into your life and completely take it over, changing everything you've known in an instant. And then there are the villains who have always been there, shaping your life with viciousness and terror and abuse. Mo'nique's Mary, deliberately and ironically named you can bet, is maybe cinema's worst domestic monster in Precious, turning in a performance as coiled and horrifying as her standup comedy career proved her to be loose and engaging. She was fairly famous to her fans thanks to a stint on TV's The Parkers and roles in broad comedies like Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins, but it's hard to imagine who other than Mo'nique herself knew she had a performance like Mary in her. It's not just that she masks the gregariousness and appeal she has onstage, but that she transforms it into something rotten and awful, talking her daughter into virtually anything and, in a tour de force scene at the end, pleading her own case as a decent human being. It's a case that can't be won-- Mary is a monster. But because the woman playing her is a talented comedian who deeply understands audiences and performance, she's a monster unlike any other onscreen.

Billy Connolly In The Boondock Saints

by Mack Rawden

Some may argue Billy Connolly’s portrayal of Il Duce is perhaps a bit out of place on a list dedicated to the most villainous and sociopathic society has to offer. I would respectfully disagree. Yes, a self-imposed code of morality may stop the Duke from laying waste to women and children, but his rules certainly don’t say anything about delaying executions to make sure women are watching. Sometimes evil can only be conquered by evil, and sometimes it takes the cold aggressiveness of a comedian to properly portray a monster. Connolly has been a beloved stand-up in Europe for almost forty years. He was recently voted the best in the history of the United Kingdom, but in The Boondock Saints, he was somehow able to channel that manic energy into a life singularly obsessed with death. Il Duce may not have the random aggression of a serial killer, but he has the charisma and dedication of a truly stunning mind. He won’t be stopped, and with Billy Connolly as his mouth piece, who would wish it?

Dan Aykroyd In Grosse Pointe Blank

by Eric Eisenberg

Never in my life did I ever expect to hear Dan Aykroyd say a line like, “I'm gonna put a bullet hole in your fucking forehead, and I'm gonna fuck the brain hole!” but then I watched Grosse Pointe Blank. Playing a character known only as Mr. Grocer, Aykroyd is a hitman doing his best to convince John Cusack’s Martin Blank to join his assassins union. While this may sound kind of ridiculous, Grocer isn’t exactly a guy who takes no for an answer. Not only does he make repeated efforts to put a few extra holes in Blank, he even goes to the NSA and tips them off about the protagonist’s newest job and then tries to steal it for himself. If that’s not the definition of vindictive, I don’t know what is. From his time on Saturday Night Live to movie roles like Dr. Raymond Stantz in Ghostbusters and Elwood Blues in The Blues Brothers, Aykroyd has made a career out of being a goof, but in Grosse Pointe Blank he’s a true killer.