by Glenn Lovell
Comics as whack-job meanies ‒ I know, I know, it sounds like an oxymoron.
Think back. Some of our best bad guys have been culled from the ranks of funnymen. Just off the top of my head I can think of Mickey Rooney as the frothing title character in “Baby Face Nelson,” Second City alum Alan Arkin as the killer in “Wait Until Dark,” Jerry Lewis as talk-show host Jerry (sangfroid) Langford in “King of Comedy,” and, more recently, Albert Brooks as Bernie Rose in “Drive.”
Brooks may be the most terrifying of them all. The comic used his fussy, deadpan delivery to excellent effect, making his psycho gangster as deadly with a straight razor as a quip. “That’s it, it’s done. There’s no pain, it’s over,” Rose soothes after slicing open a character’s artery.
Most comics have a dark side. That’s why they become comics, to hide or suppress their neuroses, those feelings of inadequacy.
We were reminded of this in spades when Robin Williams lost his battle with depression. The former standup comic-improv genius was adept at channeling his manic behavior, using it to get inside social misfits, even killers. Who can forget Williams as the deeply disturbed drug-store employee Sy Parrish in “One-Hour Photo.”
The latest comic to shock with an abrupt about-face is Steve Carell. In the critically acclaimed “Foxcatcher,” the good-naturedly dense “Office”/”Anchorman” star dons putty nose and nubby rabbit-like dentures to become the seriously weird John du Pont, heir to the du Pont family fortune and an America First super-patriot straight out of “The Manchurian Candidate.”
Carell is creepy-plus in the role, a textbook paranoid schizophrenic who shows very little outward emotion. Indeed, he walks as if he’s dead from the neck down. Besides a nasty love-hate thing with mommy dearest, the character, like Sy Parrish, doesn’t know how to interact with people. So he buys their acceptance.
Where did Carell find this character? It wouldn’t surprise me at all if he tapped into something fundamentally “off” about himself, like stage fright or a fear of not measuring up. We all have it, but comics seem to bury ‒ and eventually mine it better than the rest of us.