There’s a reason comedic actors generally don’t win Oscars—and it’s not just because the Oscars are pure mishegos. A lot of comedic actors are funny at the expense of truly inhabiting a part. And when they do try to "act seriously," they take on a forced quality, a knitted brow—à la Jim Carey or Robin Williams—that signals "I am actor, hear me roar." (Although, sadly, Williams did win an Oscar for his "serious" role as the shrink with the crap Boston accent in Good Will Hunting).
So who would have thought that comedic actor Bill Murray would be so likely to be Oscar-nominated this year? Half his peers are dead, the other half hoist their big bellies and shit-eating grins in increasingly shoddy vehicles, but Murray has continued a (mostly) upward trajectory of his career (he seemed to regret Charlie’s Angels even while acting in it). By now, with performances in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, and as Bob Harris in this season’s cinematic haiku, Lost in Translation, he’s become a bona fide elder statesman of comedic acting.
In interviews, writer/director Sofia Coppola has said she wrote the part of Harris for Murray, and it makes sense. He’s the perfect candidate to paint a portrait of resignation and still render it funny. Only now, with his old-man jowls and sunken bottom lip, Murray willingly serves himself up as the straight man to the visual jokes peppering the film. He’s the big American lout too big for his Japanese robe and slippers, the one who can’t work the hotel’s exercise equipment, towers over everyone in elevators, is equally confused by Japanese hookers and commercial directors, and is in the throes of that ultimate American cliché—the midlife crisis.
Bob is a has-been actor who’s in Tokyo for a week to "earn $2 million for a whiskey ad campaign when he should be doing a play, take time away from his wife, and, apparently, forget [his] son’s birthday," as he tells bemused Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson).
"Ah, you’re having a mid-life crisis," she says in the knowing way only a twenty-something can muster. "Have you bought a Porsche yet?"
"I was thinkin’ about it," he says glumly.
A Midwestern accent still inflects Murray’s words, but now his voice is cracking and sad; the funny echoes of his former self only flashing here and there. He, like his character, seems to recognize his schtick—which he still launches into when charming the also unhappily married Charlotte—as a kind of whistling in the dark. He doesn’t pretend to substitute it for genuine human contact. Rather, he now uses it solely as a way into characters he portrays, to help connect with others in scenes rather than hold them at arm’s length. When he holds a stuffed animal while greeting Charlotte, she says, "Is that for me?" and he mumbles in response, "Yeah, it can be for you." Part of what’s funny is the endearing contrast between his little-boy delivery and the old man he’s becoming. He’s become the joke as much as the joker—and he’s willing to do it if it serves the story, a sign not only of a true actor but of a grownup.
In the last few months, many of the "mainstream indie" directors have released new films: The Coen Brothers, John Sayles, Quentin Tarantino, Gus Van Sant, Jane Campion, Richard Linklater. Whether or not anyone likes it, these directors have become, as Murray has, part of the indie older guard; they’ve matured from flouting cinematic institutions to being ones in their own right. And of their recent crop, Linklater’s is the finest. It’s hard to make a movie that’s actually funny as opposed to clever (the Coen Brothers sure failed this time around), especially when it’s also, like Coppola’s film, a study of disappointment. What’s required is humility and a willingness to take your thumbprint off the camera lens, something most directors aren’t willing to do by the time they’ve achieved the status of auteur.
Historically, Linklater’s sensibility rather than an actual character has lived at the center of his movies, especially in the case of his classics Slackers and Dazed and Confused (my favorite ’90s movie). And yet, in School of Rock, he and writer/castmember Mike White have created the perfect vehicle for actor Jack Black by winding him up with a specially tailored storyline and unobtrusive direction, and then getting out of his way.
Black plays Dewey Finn, the kind of ’70s-cum-’90s guy known to flowchart rock n’ roll history with a very straight face (like Linklater himself). As the substitute teacher shaping his students into a rock ’n’ roll band to win his local battle of the bands, he fails artistically but succeeds in "sticking it to the man" (which, he reminds his class, "is the point of rockin’ "); when his kids hijack a schoolbus, he marvels, "Man, that is so punk rock." Dewey-as-Black is the court jester of Generation X—all of us in our 30s who’ve not quite thrown in the towel on our aspirations even if we should have.
He’s never cut his hair; he still wears flannel shirts and rock tees, and wields terms like "awesome" unironically; and he labors to "service society by rocking" though he can’t pay his rent and his hairline’s starting to recede. Eyes rolling and blinking wildly, lips smacking, eyebrows arching, teeth gnashing, limbs akimbo, head bobbing, fingers jabbing and snapping, Black is in every way a comedian rather than an actor. He seizes almost every frame of the movie, mostly sharing it only with kids who live on the right side of cute and so in no way steal his thunder. Pop culture references and arcane slang jangle through his dialogue; he swallows some words, hyper-pronounces others, and sings the rest in a falsetto for the ages. "I’ll see you on the flip flop," he says.
At the end of the day, schtick either deepens, or it dies. In School of Rock, it is director Richard Linklater rather than actor Jack Black who curbs his schtick, so that he may capture an actor who, unlike Murray, is sure to burn out fast while he’s still at the top of his game. After all, Black may be a one-trick pony, but, oh, how he works that trick. And in this Age of Grief, funny still goes a long way—fast.