Even the most well-known comedians in the world need a break from making us laugh, and when they turn to drama, it usually results in surprisingly poignant performances.
Comedians like Jim Carrey, Robin Williams, and Whoopi Goldberg have built their careers around their comedy. When you think of their names, the first thing that comes to mind is probably their stand-up or their comedic roles. For Jim Carrey it might be The Mask, while for Robin Williams it might be Mrs. Doubtfire. And then there’s Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act.
While many comedians stick to what they’re known for (aka what makes them money), some actors don’t mind taking a little risk and doing something different. Being a comedian doesn’t mean you always have to be funny, but it’s a bit like finding out you’ve bitten into an oatmeal raisin cookie thinking it was chocolate chip. It’s not that one is inherently better than the other; it’s that they’re so different. And when expectation doesn’t meet reality, you can either be horribly disappointed or delightfully surprised.
(I, for one, will never be disappointed when I bite into an oatmeal raisin cookie.)
There are hundreds of comedians who have successfully taken on more dramatic roles, but these 10 films stand out in my mind as some of the best or most surprising instances of taking that leap of faith.
As one of the funniest people to have ever existed, I always need to take a moment before I watch Robin Williams in a more serious role. He was an incredibly talented actor, no matter the genre, but after growing up with him making me laugh until I had tears in my eyes, watching him in something that might bring tears to my eyes for a different reason was always jarring.
Most people would probably pick Good Will Hunting or Dead Poets Society, which are objectively better movies, but I’m choosing One Hour Photo because it was the first time I remember being surprised that comedy legend Robin Williams was going to be in a thriller. The movie is about a mentally unstable man who becomes obsessed with a family whose photos he’s been developing. It certainly wasn’t Williams’ most critically-acclaimed movie, but it did remind us all that he could do more than just tickle our funny bones.
I grew up with Jim Carrey in the same way I grew up with Robin Williams. Their physical comedy is unparalleled. Carrey always had those over-the-top insane roles that he seemed to pull off with such ease — Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Mask, and even Batman Forever. He’s known for the way he can manipulate his face and his body to pull off some of the biggest laughs the world has ever seen.
I’ll admit that the inspiration for this entire article came from my colleague Kendra’s article about Kidding, where she listed five very serious reasons to watch Jim Carrey in Kidding. It got me thinking about some of the other roles Carrey has taken on in the past, and how he’s capable of being quite a subtle actor when he needs to be. Though most people will cite Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as their favorite, I have to go with The Truman Show as mine. It’s not without its funny moments, but the heartbreaking truth that Truman discovers about his life — that it’s all a lie and he’s the unwitting star of a reality show — displays some of Jim Carrey’s best work to date.
With Anchorman, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Bruce Almighty, and The Office all in his back pocket, I thought Steve Carell was going to be a life-long funny man. Though his physical comedy isn’t quite as out there as Robin Williams’ or Jim Carrey’s, he’s got a style all his own. Unassuming and a bit quirky at times, Carell could take the driest humor and turn it into comedy gold.
Though he’s had his fair share of dramatic roles in the past, it seems like they’re coming more and more frequently lately. I’m certainly not complaining. Little Miss Sunshine and Foxcatcher should be enough to convince you of Carell’s range, but I have to admit the one movie I’m choosing for this list hasn’t even come out yet. Welcome to Marwen is about a man who suffers from PTSD but has found solace in painting miniature figures, which come alive in his mind. It looks like this film will be heartwrenching to watch, but one that will undoubtedly fill us with hope and love.
Just like Robin Williams and Jim Carrey, I grew up watching Whoopi Goldberg on my TV. She was such a force to be reckoned with, and insanely funny to boot. I fell in love with her in both Sister Act and Sister Act 2, as well as Corrina Corrina (I still blow at stop lights because of this movie), but even her stand-up comedy was a huge part of my childhood.
I know everyone always thinks of The Color Purple for Whoopi’s standout dramatic role, and she deserves every accolade for that incredible portrayal of Celie Johnson, but since this is my list and I get to pick my favorite Whoopi role, it’s got to be Oda Mae Brown in Ghost. Just like with The Truman Show, there are some pretty funny moments in this film, but overall, Whoopi brings a sense of gravitas to a tragic story about a man who was murdered and now seeks the help of a psychic to warn his girlfriend that she may be next.
Much like many of the other actors on this list, Bill Murray truly needs no introduction. His comedy genius stretches across several decades with classics like Caddyshack, Ghostbusters, What About Bob?, Groundhog Day, Space Jam, and countless others. He is a comedy legend, and many of his movies from the ’80s and ’90s still stand the tests of time.
Lost in Translation is the easy winner here, and despite being known for his comedy, it is one of the films Murray is most famous for. Also starring Scarlett Johansson, the movie tells the story of an acclaimed actor and a recent newlywed who cross paths in Tokyo and form an unlikely friendship. Murray will break your heart in this role, but rest assured that you can always mend it by watching any one of his other incredible movies.
Unlike some of the other actors on this list, Will Smith proved his range a long time ago. But that doesn’t stop me from always thinking of him as the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Will came onto the scene in a big way with that series and it’s intrinsically tied to who he is as a person. His comedic genius is paramount in flicks like Bad Boys, Men in Black, and one of my personal favorites, Wild Wild West.
But it’s not hard to remember that Will Smith is an insanely talented person, and The Pursuit of Happyness is proof that he can make you cry as easily as he can make you laugh. This isn’t the only heavy role Will has taken on, but it’s certainly one of his best. In this film, he’s a struggling salesman looking for a better job so he can care for his son, and it shows how hard he’s willing to work in order to give his child the best life he can.
When I set out to make this list, Jonah Hill wasn’t one of the first names to come to mind. In fact, he was one of the last additions to this article. That being said, it’s obvious why he’s here. Jonah is known for comedies like Superbad and 21 Jump Street. When it comes to laughs, he’s definitely that guy who does those kinds of movies.
But Jonah has been proving he’s more than just a comedian in the last few years. The Wolf of Wall Street, while technically part comedy, is also part biography, part crime drama. But his role in Moneyball is what really sticks out to me. Inspired by the true story of Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane, Jonah and Bradd Pitt’s characters work together to use a computer-generated analysis to form a new baseball team.
Emma Stone made a name for herself with movies like Superbad, Easy A, and Zombieland. She’s an incredibly talented, incredibly funny woman whose physical comedy and line delivery are equally terrific. Though still quite young, she’s already become one of the biggest and brightest actresses in Hollywood, whether or not you’re talking about her comedy.
Like most of the other actors on this list, Stone has taken on a handful of dramatic roles. Some of her more interesting choices, like Battle of the Sexes and the recently-released Maniac, have a touch of humor to them despite being quite a change in her usual tone. That being said, The Help is the obvious pick when looking for one of Stone’s best dramatic roles. She portrays a journalist who decides to interview the African American women who work for white families while the Civil Rights Movement divides the country. It’s a powerful role and one that complements portrayals by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. It’s hard to hold your own against powerhouses the likes of those two, but Stone does it beautifully.
I grew up watching Miss Congeniality and Speed, and they’re still some of my all-time favorite movies. Sandra Bullock is one of the best action-comedy actors, and some of her movies will go down in history as classics of the genre. The Heat, for one, had me laughing so hard I cried, and she deserves as much credit as Melissa McCarthy for making that film a success.
On the flip side, Sandra Bullock is great at drama. Ocean’s 8 showcases her ability to take on a leadership role in an ensemble cast of characters while still standing out. Our Brand is Crisis has its funny moments amidst the serious backdrop of revolution. But it’s The Blind Side that really hammers home the kind of power she can bring to dramatic roles. This film is about the story of Michael Oher, who goes from being homeless to a first round NFL draft pick. Bullock lets Quinton Aaron stand in the spotlight throughout the movie without stealing it away from him while simultaneously commanding your attention. Just watching the trailer brings me to tears.
While I’ll always love John Cho for that one episode he did of Charmed, he’s best known for the Harold and Kumar movies, as well as a couple stints in the American Pie franchise. Cho is great at stoner comedy, though I have to admit I loved him in Selfie, where he had a bit of a serious and more heartfelt role.
Still, Cho has also proven he’s a great dramatic actor. He took up the role of Sulu in the new Star Trek franchise, and though he does have some comedic moments, he is one of the more serious members of the team. But nothing compares to his role in Searching, a mystery/thriller where he plays a dad looking for his missing daughter. It’s been getting great reviews despite not being his typical vehicle, and credit should go to Cho’s enormous acting chops.
What are some of the best dramatic roles from your favorite comedians?
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