The best American acting nowadays is being played for and from the rafters. Shapeshifters by the names of Regina Hall, Bill Hader, Kristin Wiig, and Aubrey Plaza have reminded us what it means to steal a scene. These usually non-A-list actors either redeem their otherwise forgettable vehicles (Regina Hall as an Insta-Mom in “Vacation”) or place the cherry on top of an otherwise crisp sundae (Regina Hall as Brenda in the first 3 “Scary Movies”). Whether it’s a top-notch artwork (the foggy and funky “Inherent Vice”) or a lowly, dirt-crusted vulgarity (the fascinating and funny “Dirty Grandpa”), the legacy of the American mall-theater movie rests in the hands of some majorly talented supporting actors.
The most endearing movies, acting-wise, are the ones where the cast, not content with playing second fiddle to anyone, topple over one another in a mad dash for the spotlight. The cast balances each other out, and, with the furious clash of pure personalities, add a sense of passion to the filmmaking process. I’m thinking of gems like “Inside Out,” “Hail, Caesar!,” the post-“Fighter” films of David O. Russell, “Inherent Vice”, and “Mistress America,” where the director puts each ant-sized actor inside a vast sandpit and watches they butt heads in a chaotic frenzy. There’s always noise in these movies, but it’s quite cleanly controlled, never completely cluttered. The goal: a relentless momentum, focusing on the funniness or tragedy of the current scene, forgetting the plot (because who cares? We’ve seen them all). The cohesiveness of the yarn nowadays seems secondary. What matters is how many memorable bits can be conjured up. What will go viral on YouTube or Jimmy Fallon/Kimmel? What can be played any time of the day as a sort of perk-me-up? For this reason, scenes such as the homoerotic sailors’ jig in the Coens’ “Hail, Caesar!” or the DeNiro-Plaza sex finale of “Dirty Grandpa” have as peculiar a memorability as the best of Monty Python’s or Jerry Lewis’s taffy-like sketch-comedy.
“Inside Out”’s crowded cast works to support the plot’s point and to further the concept of “derelict-appendage comedy.” The NBC + Comedy Central Quintet is an eclectic bunch: sassy Mindy Kaling, morose Phyllis Smith, jittery Bill Hader, the Krakatoan Lewis Black, and a half-spunky-half-annoying Amy Poehler headlining as the emotion Joy. To use these comedians is a stroke of narrative invention; each of these headliners, mixed together, nail the chattering inner chaos of Riley’s mind in their refusal to let the other partner get a single word in edgewise.
The Hader-Kaling-Black trio is especially effective at emoting from inside their own invisible sarcophagi, making up a curiously disconnected threesome who are forced by the CG camera to share the same Richard Lester-like tableau space (suggesting a doll’s house, or a comic-book-panel). What drives each scene is the speed of the zippy one-liners; again, they have the chewed-over rhythm of a throwaway-dialogue-littered Lester movie like “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Help!” or “The Knack.” Each personality is sculpted to deliver a series of ever fantastic one-liners: Kaling’s perpetually annoyed sneers and snorts, Black’s husky voice suggesting an overworked office drone who didn’t get the raise he (thought he) deserved. It’s Bill Hader, though, who interests me the most. His Fear sounds like a mix of an old-timey carnival barker (“Mmmmmstep right up, ladies an’ gents!”), Eddie Bracken’s stuttering hero in the Preston Sturges comedies (“THE SPOTS!”), and the paranoid lobster from “Finding Nemo.” (“My bubbles…”) It’s that combination of old traditions and new directions that will guarantee the survival of the Hollywood actor as we knew them in the age of Hawks-Hitchcock-Sturges.
Certain films use the cast to create a perfect atmosphere of confusion. “Hail, Caesar!” and “Inherent Vice” are two of the most daring, recent examples. Their goal was to create a manic alt-universe defined by a panic-attack-inducing sprawl of weirdos, postcard-settings, crooks, assholes, and certifiables. They succeeded.
In the former film (“Hail, Caesar!”), the Coen Brothers continue their gleefully anarchic alienation-drive by reimagining the history of Hollywood as one hallucinogen-induced lucid dream. There’s no set logic to the boatloads of folks the Coen Brothers marvelously sketch out in less than 100 minutes: A singing-acting cowboy hick, a kidnapped alcoholic actor (G. Clooney), the diva star of a Busby Berkeley musical impersonating either a Billy Wilder femme fatale or a chewy Bronx gun moll, twin gossip columnists who chatter and conspire like the square-angled Roz Russell in Hawks’ “His Girl Friday”, a Red-supporting Channing Tatum, a group of mysterious Trumbo-ish screenwriters at the head of a conspiracy far more sinister than the Illuminati. Oh, yes, and Jonah Hill.
In the latter film (“Incoherent Vice”), director P.T. Anderson’s signature artsy muddle merges with Thomas Pynchon’s delight of the labyrinthian absurd, with bizarre results. The detective hero Doc (Joaquin Phoenix) is a termite-sized pawn in a chess game played by the most vivid anteaters of recent screen memory, mainstream or not. They include:
- a shifty John McClane cop (Josh Brolin), who is a man of simple pleasures, ordering pancakes at a Japanese restaurant, slurping on black cock-like frozen bananas (gagging at one point). When the moment of climax comes (the cop literally eats Doc’s stash of weed), the scene is played with a tear-inducing deadpan that’s as idiotic as it is intriguing.
- a horny dentist (Martin Short, in 80s SNL sketch mode). The moment the dentist pulls down his pants like a joyous toddler to screw his assistant is one of the film’s most memorable—and unseeable—images.
- A stoic nurse, Doc’s assistant (Maya Rudolph), who is surprisingly the most lonely soul in the film. (And that’s saying a lot, in a film littered with lonely souls.) We can only think she’s always in her skimpy nurse’s outfit, making sardonic jibber-jabber with the customers, never leaving her post even to sleep.
- Owen Wilson is a junkie sax-player who’s accidentally working for Nixon.
- Harpist/singer Joanna Newsom as Sortilege, the film’s here-today-gone-tomorrow narrator, who appears irregularly and speaks in hippie gobbledegook that’s only a hair removed from a “White Album”-listening Manson Family cultist. She may or may not exist.
The overwhelming ensemble cast creates a pungent sense of paranoia, edginess, and terror. More here than in his other arthouse darlings, PTA goes for pure, tough, un-declamatory mood.
The most interesting sideline-acting doesn’t flourish well in dictatorships where there is only one great Actor: DDL (“Lincoln”, “There Will Be Dud”), Meryl Streep (who overwhelms her poor piano player in “Florence Foster Jenkins”), Eddie Redmayne (“Theory of Eddie-Thing”), Joaquin “Master” Phoenix, Leo DiCaprio in the hands of Inar-rote-u. Instead, the cast-culture is better cultivated when the director takes a laidback family approach, a sort of alternate commune where the cast feed off each other’s energy.
Directors David O. Russell (“Joy”, “American Hustle”) and Noah Baumbach (“Mistress America”) make this their top priority in their late-period screwball capers. They learned the right lessons from masters like Howard Hawks, Preston Sturges, and Gregory La Cava, where each actor is on a level playing field, regardless of status or billing. In a vision like Baumbach’s, a pregnant Asian woman (“Goddammit, Karen!”) can upstage all the other Millenial heavies with her background backtalk and laconic, hoarse cries of “Can I please go home?” that hang-dissolve-remain in the air like sprayed Febreeze.
Even a movie as crass as “Dirty Grandpa” has a noticeably democratic approach to acting amongst a bravura cast. Director Dan Mazer demands generous scene-stealing from every single one of his actors. The most eccentric acting in this oddly effective satire comes from Aubrey Plaza, the Queen of Deadpan. Playing a cartoon of a cartoon of a college girl on spring break, Plaza’s highly constructed looseness is downright disorienting. In her first scene, she sizes up De Niro with huge bug eyes, a pitchy voice (as shrill as Jayne Mansfield in Tashlin’s “Girl Can’t Help It”), and an ungrounded range of tones. She settles on something for 5 seconds, does an about-face, goes on a different wavelength for 10 more seconds, makes an obtuse-angled path in a new direction, repeat ad nauseum. Her sexed-up caricature is choppy and exhilarating. It’s Valley Girl-ish, airhead-ish, not quite authentically college, never bookish, and not even all that Millenial. (She and her buddies still use Photoshop to touch up their instant pics.) “What’s she going for?” we ask. “Jerry Lewis,” she could respond back. Like Lewis, Plaza’s performance is whirligiggy and contaminated; stretching for 10 or 15 effects at once, never staying with a single one of them, but still laughter-inducing and interest-inspiring due to the sheer dexterity of the tentacle-like reaching. She goes for something completely out of her expected register—the lowkey/creepy April Ludgate from “Parks and Rec”—and comes out a weird winner.
Sometimes, though, all it takes is a well-buttered character actor to steal a movie completely (regardless of the democratic approach) and get away with it. Item: Though Whit Stillman is usually good at letting his actors bounce off each other with laconic-punchy wit, in “Love & Friendship,” the absurdity of the world he tackles (Jane Austen’s aristocratic England) is perfectly coalesced into the figure of Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett). This John Cleese-like suitor seems to have no idea he’s in line to marry Lady Susan’s (Kate Beckinsale’s) daughter Frederica. He reacts to a plate of green peas like Martin Short’s dentist reacting to the offer of sex: with boyish glee and impish idiocy. Bennett, in this role, is as big a mainstream revelation to American audiences as was Mark Rylance in last year’s logy Spielberg vehicle “Bridge of Spies.”
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With the quality of movies fluctuating with Seismic intensity, it’s up to the supporting actor to keep the terrain of any given blockbuster grounded. The supporting actor is less prone to scene-hogging, more free to rack up laughter or tears by acting in the sideline.
Raking up laughter, note Louis CK in Russell’s “American Hustle,” where CK puts his bemused, “What the fuck am I doing here, talking to you?” nervousness to inventive use. His nervous FBI agent adds yet another detour to a film that’s already knotty and pockmarked with side-tangents that add nothing to the plot, only pure Character and Atmosphere. An entire tense subplot is drawn out of a story CK keeps telling Bradley Cooper in bits and pieces, involving a disastrous trip on an icy lake. By the end, we care more about hearing the end to this story than seeing how the convoluted ABSCAM plot at the ostensible heart of “American Hustle” pans out. Of course, “American Hustle” is a film that, like “Inherent Vice” or Altman’s “The Long Goodbye,” presents a red-herring main-plot that ends up being subordinate to the hectic hurricane of people in the throes of identity crises—the true emotional heart of this soon-to-be-classic.
Raking up tears, there’s Linda Emond’s soul-crushing turn in “Indignation”, as the divorce-seeking mother of a punky Jewish atheist (Logan Lerman, “Perks of Being a Wallpaper”). He’s dating a suicidal girl, and he’s just had his appendix taken out. In one unforgettable scene, the mother visits her son at hospital, post-appendectomy, solely to unload a relentless stream-of-stern-words on him. She knows about the girl’s suicidal tendencies. The mother’s pain is palpable; her concern for the son’s well-being is steeped in experience. Yet the words that she says are metallic, cold, frighteningly cruel in their upfrontness. The flatness of Emond’s voice as she tells the son, “Well, she slit one wrist; that’s one too many. We’ve only the two” is unbelievably devastating, and is the one element of Emond’s backgrounded acting that keeps her character-type (badgering ma) vivid.
Neither CK nor Emond adds much to the central plot-focus (the ABSCAM plot; the awakening of two tortured lovers). But they add an incalculable amount to the mood, atmosphere, and background color of their respective movies. The supporting actor, in general, is tasked to play the most flesh-and-blood characters, people who feel most comfortable within the warm bosom of the movie universe. She is who our eyes are drawn towards. The supporting actor, in her seeming marginality, becomes the filmmakers’ secret weapon to success.
(Editor’s note: A version of this story appeared on October 1, 2016, which noted that the Louis CK ice-fishing story was told “to Christian Bale.” In fact, CK tells the story to Bradley Cooper’s character Richie DiMaso, not Bale. This error has been duly noted and corrected.)
Contact Carlos Valladares at [email protected].