Serious Actors Are the Funniest Stars of 2016

By  · Published on May 31st, 2016

Traditional comedians aren’t cutting it, so dramatic actors are cutting in.

“Why is the actress from Damages here? That doesn’t make any sense.” Rose Byrne is now celebrated for her comedic work, but back when she auditioned for 2010's Get Him to the Greek, she was only known as a dramatic actress. That’s why Nicholas Stoller, who is often credited with discovering her funnier side, recalls initially questioning her talent in a recent interview with Den of Geek. Now, in Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, their third collaboration together, Byrne gives one of the funniest performances of the year.

“I don’t think I’m particularly funny as a person, but comedians are often very serious when you meet them,” she told Indiewire last year, “[Doing comedy is] sort of like doing drama, but you have to get a laugh on top of that.” It is odd to separate drama and comedy as far as performances go, but the former is still recognized more often as an honorable achievement. Traditionally funny actors who’ve done serious movies, however, argue that comedy is harder. Therefore we ought to give greater acknowledgment to traditionally serious actors standing out in funny movies.

Along with Byrne, the majority of this year’s funniest performances are from stars who haven’t really been associated with comedy, or didn’t start out that way. There’s Ryan Gosling in The Nice Guys, Alden Ehrenreich in Hail, Caesar!, Ralph Fiennes in A Bigger Splash, Ben Whishaw in The Lobster, and opposite Byrne in Neighbors 2, Zac Efron. Most of them have played humorous roles in the past, with Efron reprising his breakout part from the first Neighbors, but none have shone quite as hilariously as they do this year. Each should be seen as not just giving isolated funny performances but as being the future of comedy movies.

“It just didn’t seem like [comedies] were in the cards for me,” Gosling told the Metro this year regarding his career up to now. Fiennes has made similar statements in the past, here to Red magazine about his rare comedic part for 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel: “I’ve often wanted to do stuff like that, but I hadn’t been asked to play that sort of part before.” For Ehrenreich, he had to make the effort. “My agents got a hold of the script,” he told the Guardian about Hail, Caesar! “I read it and asked if I could go in. The casting people said no, but I asked again.” Lesson: let the great dramatic actors do comedy!

“I could never do standup ‐ my comedy comes from character stuff, not necessarily from jokes,” said Byrne to the Guardian last year while promoting Spy (which also features a surprisingly gut-bursting performance by serious action star Jason Statham). And that’s the key to where many of these comedic performances are coming from, a place of character rather than one-note caricature or situation. You can’t really sum up why they’re “funny” in a single pitch like you can with the protagonists of things like Zoolander or Anchorman or The Hangover or Paul Blart: Mall Cop.

With possible exception of Gosling in The Nice Guys, all of this year’s funniest performances could be found exactly as they are in dramatic versions of their respective movies. But even Gosling’s slapstick feels like it’s part of a grounded movie compared to the physical comedy fare we’re used to. In a recent roundtable interview, he put it the opposite way, which also works: “I think [Shane Black cast me and Russell Crowe], not because he thought we were funny, but because he thought it would be funny to have two guys that are so serious be in something so silly.” Fiennes is actually in a fairly dramatic movie, but doing a believably wild bit, and Whishaw is part of an ensemble doing ridiculous things played as serious in a bizarre dystopian film, one that is like a more deadpan version of Woody Allen’s truly silly sci-fi comedy Sleeper.

A lot of serious actors may find more comfort in such dry comedy, but then even many straight-person roles lately are turning out more humorous than their goofy counterparts. Some of this year’s other funny performances include Crowe in The Nice Guys and Olivia Colman in The Lobster, neither of whom comes across as trying to be. And as funny as Ryan Reynolds is in the year’s biggest comedy, Deadpool, Brianna Hildebrand is at least as memorable if not more so as his stone-faced foil-as-sidekick, Negasonic Teenage Warhead. Everybody Wants Some, meanwhile, has a naturally funny ensemble throughout, but the outrageous comic relief, J. Quinton Johnson, is actually the least funny part of the group.

Broader comedy does continue to be a difficult spot for some traditionally serious actors, of course. Robert De Niro’s performance in Bad Grandpa, for instance, is not among this year’s funniest. Meryl Streep’s work in the upcoming biopic Florence Foster Jenkins also does not appear to be her best ‐ and she has been great in the occasional funny role in the past. In the broadest of all, it’s hard to see what Kevin Spacey is even thinking playing a businessman turned into a cat in Nine Lives. But maybe he’ll be the next of this year’s surprises there?

So far, 2016 hasn’t really been a great year for traditional comedic stars. Many of the movies expected to be big hits for the genre due to their funny leads, such as Zoolander 2, The Boss, The Brothers Grimsby, Keanu, and Ride Along 2, have underperformed ‐ even with the last one being in the box office top 10. The rest of the year doesn’t look too promising for live-action movie laughs, either, at least not in the places you’d expect. Even if both Ghostbusters and Central Intelligence turn out to be funnier than they look, their comedic stars (namely The Boss’s Melissa McCarthy and Ride Along 2’s Kevin Hart) will mostly be overshadowed by the movies’ respective effects-driven fantasy and action plots.

Today, you’re more likely to find favorite comedians of the past on Netflix, as with Adam Sandler’s latest, The Do-Over, or having trouble getting their work on the big screen, such as in the cases of two upcoming, long-delayed Zach Galifianakis features, Masterminds and Keeping Up with the Joneses. One familiar funnyman does have an encouraging film out later this year: Billy Bob Thornton, who returns as the titular curmudgeons in Bad Santa 2. But he’s actually representative of the same success with comedy as this year’s aforementioned standouts, having started out better known for his dramatic roles.

With more than half the year left to go, we may continue to see funny performances from actors we’d never expect, at the same time as we may be comparatively disappointed by such comedy stars as Owen Wilson, Ed Helms, and Jonah Hill. If these performers continue to leave a vacancy in our search for laughs, there is more likelihood of alternative material finding its way to top of the pack. It’s not surprising that The Lobster and Whit Stillman’s latest, Love & Friendship, are showing such strength at the box office, and we’re sure to see other smaller movies following suit.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.