So the Dude picked up the Best Actor award for Crazy Heart. Huh. That’s ‘gut-wrenching drama’ for you–Academy types eat it up. And yet this same group has no nose for comedy, and never has. All Jeff Bridges got for The Big Lebowski was the ongoing appreciation of legions of dialogue quoting fans, undimmed some twelve years later. The Dude abides…
Will “Bad” Blake? I don’t think so. Oh, his is a dramatic story–talented songwriter loses himself in booze/stumbles into a good-hearted woman/tries to fly right/fails/drinks himself into a puddle/hits rock bottom/decides to get sober/bravely faces one day at a time/the end. And yet, despite the considerable skills of Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal and even Robert Duvall, it was every bit as boringly predictable as it sounds. Oh it was dramatic–pukingly so–but that’s the problem. Drama can be so annoyingly formulaic. “I’m an addict–look at my journey!” “I’ve got a disease–look at my plight!” “I’m a beaten survivor–look at me every freakin’ night on Lifetime™!” Everyday, drama fills the Metro section of every major city’s dying newspaper. Gather a few talented actors, tell the sad story, then pick out your sparkly dress for the award show…
Now comedy is a whole another animal. To really work, it has to be new and unexpected. It can not survive without surprise. And that’s why comedy has a hard time gaining broad critical mass; it has a thousand niches and a thousand tiny audiences. Arenas full of people may enjoy Dane Cook; and yet the internet teems with people convinced he’s ‘not funny’ (proof he has been at least sporadically hilarious here). Almost every Pixar movie ever made qualifies as a comedy, despite the box-office poison of being ‘family friendly.’ And while The Hangover may not be everyone’s cup of tea, it became the third highest grossing R rated film ever in the U.S. last Summer.
People can agree on what constitutes drama: “My, what a terrible choice they gave Sophie.” But comedy comes in all sorts of flavors, from SpongeBob to Borat. What is hacky and broad to one group is inspired and hilarious to another. What feels tame to some is waaaay over the line to others. Worse, you need surprise in your material, which makes comedy really, really hard.
None of this amounts to particularly fresh insight of course, But it hopefully adds context to why for me, the big acting performance of the weekend didn’t happen Sunday night on the Oscars but Saturday night on pay-per-view. My wife and I ordered the uneven, but largely funny The Invention of Lying. In this slight film, the singular delivery of Ricky Gervais stands as a far more jaw-dropping achievement than the dramatic drunkenness of even the likable Jeff Bridges.
Gervais is pants-wettingly funny. He delivers lines brilliantly, but what he does perhaps better than anyone on the planet, is react. His reacting skills tower above the norm. He can deliver the quick reaction with great style but he’s far more amazing when dissembling over the course of ten to thirty seconds, doing nothing more than reacting with a constant stream of inventive nuance. In an industry thick with action heroes, he is the definitive re-action hero.
In the scene pictured at right, Gervais has just convinced his unrequited love that sex outside of marriage is a no-no, thus ruining Rob Lowe’s character’s designs on her. For a moment, he is the picture of smug self-satisfaction until he opens his birthday card and finds her handwritten coupon for birthday sex. Caught in his own web, his face meticulously catalogues the slow realization of his error over the course of twenty-two hilarious seconds. It is nothing but a reaction shot, executed by a virtuoso master of the art.
And in that reaction, that pitch-perfect, undeniably fresh and surprising reaction, Ricky Gervais reveals the depth of his truly remarkable talent. Even if it’s not the kind of performance that will win him an Oscar.
Comedy like that sticks with you. Ricky Gervais abides.