Stephen Arnell

Ten films starring comedians

Ten films starring comedians
Mellisa McCarthy in Spy (Shutterstock)
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The news that Dave Chappelle has the unwelcome distinction of being the second big-name stand-up comic to be attacked on stage this year has the worrying signs of a possible trend. The first of course was when Will Smith slapped Chris Rock after the comedian made a tasteless joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s hair (or lack of it) at the 2022 Academy Awards.

There is an odd twist of fate about these confrontations though. Back in 1996, Jada Pinkett (as was) played Carla Purty in the remake of Jerry Lewis’s The Nutty Professor.

In one scene, she watches with tears of laughter in her eyes as boyfriend Buddy Love (Eddie Murphy) mounts the stage to beat up cruel night club comedian Reggie Warrington – Dave Chappelle. Spooky.

A quite different scenario for early alternative comedian Lenny Bruce (1925-1966), whose stage routine was considered so shocking that he was arrested by undercover police multiple times after his ‘obscenity’-laced act.

Mirroring Chris Rock, Chappelle’s career as a movie actor hasn’t been exactly stellar. He kicked things off playing rapping Merry Man ‘Achoo’ in Mel Brooks' comedy Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993), was funny in Con Air (1997) and had a decent role in A Star is Born (2018).

People tend to forget that a goodly number of stars began their careers in stand-up comedy, including talents like Jamie Foxx, Tom Hanks, and Eric Bana. The likes of Bill Murray and Jim Carrey remain connected with their comic roots, but have given up the bearpit of live comedy. Comedians have gained plaudits in more serious roles, namely Richard Pryor (Blue Collar), Billy Connolly (Mrs Brown) and the aforementioned Murray (Lost in Translation) and Carrey (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind).  Even Jerry Lewis was good in Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1982), although to be honest, he was just playing his real (sour) self, rather than the tiresome man-child of his movies.

Some UK comedians have attempted (with limited success) to cross over into drama, but I remain unconvinced by Eddie Izzard in anything, whilst after Ghost Town (2008) and The Invention of Lying (2009) Ricky Gervais wisely sticks to the small screen.

Ricky’s former writing/screen partner Stephen Merchant has branched out successfully from comedy, with his repellent serial killer Stephen Port in Four Lives (BBC1) earlier this year earning critical praise.

Here are ten other notable films featuring comics:

Get Hard (2015) Netflix, Amazon Rent/Buy

There were mixed reviews for this Kevin Hart/Will Ferrell comedy, but if you park you brains at the door, it’s a hoot.

Farrell plays wrongly convicted hedge fund manager James King, who decides that he must ‘Get Hard’ in the time remaining to order his affairs before entering the notorious San Quentin State Prison to do ten years hard time for fraud.

Mistaking car wash owner Darnell Lewis (Hart) as reformed ex-jailbird, King hires him as a ‘consultant’ to provide prison smarts and the necessary toughening up to survive in the joint, including the art of ‘keistering’. King’s financial skills impress a gang headed by Darnell’s cousin and actual criminal Russell (T.I.), leading the broker into adopting the badass guise of ‘Mayo.’

Get Hard also features an amusing cameo from musician John Mayer where he gamely leans into the more scurrilous rumours about his ‘love-life.’ He probably figured it wouldn’t do him any harm.

Adam Sandler acolyte Rob Schneider foreshadowed Get Hard in his 2007 flick Big Stan, but to less comic effect.

Death at a Funeral (2010) Netflix, Amazon Rent/Buy

It has to be said that Chris Rock has starred in a helluva lot of truly awful movies.

From teaming with Anthony Hopkins in the dire action-comedy Bad Company (2002) to Heaven Can Wait remake Down to Earth (2001), Head of State (2003) and the excruciating Grown-Ups franchise (2010, 2013), the comedian can appear unerringly drawn to cinematic dreck. Which is a shame, as he can be very funny.

Death at a Funeral is one of his funnier pictures where he makes the role of Aaron (played by Matthew Macfadyen in the 2007 original) really shine in this enjoyable black comedy farce.

Spy (2015) Disney+, Amazon Rent/Buy

I admit that I was never a fan of Melissa McCarthy in her blue-collar CBS sitcom Mike & Molly (2010–2016), but she is excellent in Paul Feig’s Spy, which I personally rate as one of the funniest motion pictures of the last 20 years.

Even Jude Law is just about OK in it, which says much about the quality of Feig’s direction and script.

Chock-full of memorable scenes and dialogue, there are too many to single out, although a few really stand out, including when intelligence analyst Susan Cooper (McCarthy) is kitted out for her first mission in the field with secret weapons concealed as stool softener and haemorrhoid cream.

The supporting cast of Jason Statham, Rose Byrne, Peter Serafinowicz, Allison Janney, and Miranda Hart all deliver, but McCarthy holds the movie together magnificently.

Dirty Work (1998)

The late Norm Macdonald was a true comic original, his dry humour fazing those who didn’t ‘get’ him.

Back in 2008 he deliberately told the corniest jokes imaginable in Comedy Roast of Bob Saget (who also sadly died recently) to a crowd who either thought it was career suicide or comedy genius.

Dirty work is coarse, vulgar, very un-PC and quite hilarious. Saget directs a very loose adaptation of Roald Dahl’s short story Vengeance is Mine Inc., where layabouts Mitch (Macdonald) and pal Sam (Lange) initiate a revenge-for-hire business with the aim of funding heart surgery for Sam's father Pops (Jack Warden).

Many humorous escapades naturally ensue, including an unpleasant, but educational, sojourn in jail.

Uncut Gems (2019) Netflix

Adam Sandler usually squanders his talent away on a conveyor belt of movies (Netflix/other) which appear largely designed to give the comedian and his chums paid vacations in various holiday spots.

Admittedly he is genuinely funny in pictures such as Happy Gilmore (1996) and You Don't Mess with the Zohan (2008), but the amount of junk one must wade through makes the Sandler oeuvre something of an endurance test.

Sandler is excellent as the fast-talking, hyper-manic gambling addict and jeweller Howard Ratner (no relation) in the Safdie brothers intense crime thriller Uncut Gems, which really shows what the comedian can do if (and when) he pulls his finger out.

Look out for the always good value Eric Bogosian (Succession) as Ratner’s loan shark brother-in-law Arno Moradian.

Trading Places (1983) Amazon Rent/Buy

Still for me Eddie Murphy’s finest hour, his performance in John Landis’ (An American Werewolf in London) screwball comedy is outstanding, every line and sly look to the camera is perfectly calibrated and still works superbly.

Tribute must also be paid to British thesp Denholm Elliott as Coleman the butler, a part that he invests with humanity and knowing humour.

These kinds of roles became in vogue with Hollywood producers for a while; witness (if you must) the sight of Tom Courtenay in Bill Cosby’s box office disaster Leonard Part 6 (1987) and Ian ‘House of Cards’ Richardson in the Robert Townsend comedy B.A.P.S. (1997).

Last year Murphy was contemplating a return to stand-up comedy after a decades long absence from the stage.

Bad Santa (2003) NOW, Amazon Rent/Buy

The life of stand-up comedian/actor Bernie Mac (1957-2008) came to a tragically premature end when died from a combination of cardiac arrest and pneumonia, prompted by the inflammatory disease sarcoidosis from which he had suffered from over the last four years of his life.

Mac was rarely given the chance to prove his considerable talent in the movies, but Bad Santa was an exception.

In Terry Zwigoff’s (Ghost World) deeply warped seasonal picture he essays crooked shopping mall security chief Gin Slagel (Mac), who has a penchant for munching citrus fruit, pedicures, and extortion.

Bridesmaids (2011) Netflix, Amazon Prime, Rent/Buy

Dare I say it?

Bridesmaids is a ‘chick-flick’ comedy that chaps will also really enjoy, thanks to the unhinged performance (and co-writing) of Kristen Wiig and Paul Feig’s confident direction.

Great performances all round in a tale of ruptured friendships, thwarted love, and bone-headed idiocy.

Chris O’Dowd provides a thoughtful performance as police officer Nathan Rhodes, the nicer one of mildly unbalanced Annie Walker’s (Wiig) two possible loves.

The other being Jon Hamm as wealthy narcissist Ted, which didn’t strain his acting chops overly.

Wiig evidently doesn’t mind fellows from the Emerald Isle, as after O’Dowd, she worked with Jamie Dornan (Belfast) in 2021’s Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, writing with co-star Annie Mumolo (Barb), her co-scriptwriter on Bridesmaids.

Mumolo will appear in upcoming Confess, Fletch, where Jon Hamm (again) plays Gregory Mcdonald’s investigative reporter first immortalised onscreen by Chevy Chase in Fletch (1985) and Fletch Lives (1989).

There’s Something About Mary (1998) Disney+, Amazon Rent/Buy

The now retired Lee Evans pulls off an amusing trick in the movie, playing needy Pizza delivery boy Norm Phipps who masquerades as disabled British upper-crust architect Tucker but is later forced to reveal his true US identity.

Although of course, the actor is actually English.

Evans is particularly good as the professorial Tucker, whose secret passion for Mary (Cameron Diaz) enables him to see through the other fakers (Matt Dillon), hopeless cases (Ben Stiller) and weirdos (Chris Elliott) besotted with her.

His flair for physical comedy is demonstrated in his scenes as the supposedly crutch-reliant architect, although some present-day viewers may think it less than tasteful.

Like Max Wall, Norman Wisdom and Charlie Drake, Evans has also stretched himself in non-comedic roles, coming out of retirement in 2018 to act in Pinter Three.

Stan & Ollie (2018) BBC iPlayer, Amazon Rent/Buy

Steve Coogan’s portrayal of fellow Lancashire lad Stan Laurel is almost too accurate; throughout Jeff Pope’s film I kept thinking how uncannily like Laurel he was, rather than what the actor was actually saying.

John C Reilly’s Oliver Hardy is equally convincing, but as he lacks Coogan’s Partridge alter-ego, there is far less baggage.

The picture follows the rocky later years of the duo who clash when they tour for the last time, criss-crossing the dingy music halls of the UK and Ireland in 1953.

Stan & Ollie ends on a happier note, as the pair ultimately recognise what they mean to each other.

Director Pope, who co-wrote Philomena (2013) with Coogan is executive producing his controversial upcoming BBC1 Jimmy Savile series The Reckoning and is also collaborating with the comedian/actor on an adaptation of Charles Spencer’s Charles II historical novel The Lost King.

Coogan is currently starring in Chivalry (Ch4) and touring the UK as Alan Partridge in ‘motivational lecture’ Stratagem.