Comedians have tried their hands at dramatic roles since movies were created, hoping to enhance their reputations. Now it's Bill Murray's turn - again, after his panned 1984 remake of The Razor's Edge - in Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation, opening locally today.
It's tougher making people legitimately laugh than making them cry. Yet there's something about earning a completely different response from their usual audience reaction that tantalizes comedians. Maybe it's the awards they see serious actors collecting, since the industry of humor is built upon insecurity. Perhaps it's simply a reason to perform just once without fearing people won't laugh.
Sometimes they do anyway, when a comedian's lunge to be taken seriously gets so drowned in bathos, so earnestly portrayed, that the intended drama is warped into inadvertent comedy. Think of Jackie Gleason as the mute Gigot or, more recently, Jim Carrey in The Majestic.
Switching gears from comedy to drama should be a subtle endeavor, avoiding plot mechanics that are transparent tricks for tears. People used to fall for the sad clown angle, when Red Buttons won an Oscar in Sayonara for anguishing over his geisha's suicide. We can only guess how Jerry Lewis fared as a circus performer leading children to a Nazi gas chamber in The Day the Clown Cried, since that 1972 film was never released.
In recent years, the strategy has been to strip away, painstakingly, any hint that the actor is usually funny, like Adam Sandler in Punchdrunk Love and Mike Myers in 54. Not only does that design pull the comedian out of his or her comfort zone; it also alienates the performer's fans, expecting their idol to be funny in trademark fashion, at least a little bit.
It's no coincidence that the biggest movie flops of many great comedians - Richard Pryor in Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling; Steve Martin in Pennies from Heaven and A Simple Twist of Fate; Robin Williams in Being Human and Jakob the Liar - were drearily serious.
To observe the comedy-to-tragedy process done perfectly, moviegoers should check out Murray's terrific work in Lost in Translation. Writer-director Coppola's handling of Murray's previously irrepressible comical spirit - without losing sight of the fact that he had one - results in one of the year's best performances.
Murray plays Bob Harris, an American movie star visiting Tokyo to do commercials for whiskey, just as real-life actors such as Paul Newman who shun stateside endorsements have done. The money is great but Bob isn't in the mood. He would rather be doing a play, or something that would make his career seem more worthwhile than this. But the gig gets him away from his wife, who is unseen but heard and read through a series of chilly phone calls and faxes. Being stuck in a foreign country is only one portion of his sense of isolation.
This is a tragic character, no doubt. In the course of Coppola's film we'll learn even more about Bob's regrets and weaknesses, especially when he finds Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), a lonely housewife on vacation who happens to speak the same language, in tongue and meaning. It's the kind of introspective role that Newman, Robert Redford or Jack Lemmon might have played a few years ago, or perhaps Jack Nicholson right now.
But it becomes all Murray's, simply because he imprints the role with the slightest hints of the comedy that put him in a position for this kind of gamble in the first place. That's Bill Murray we see on the screen doing some typically Murray things, but it isn't. It's a canny actor using shtick just as serious thespians have used their profiles or ability to shed tears on cue, to inform the character and bond with the audience without cheapening Bob's problems.
The overall effect is comedy in service to tragedy, rather than being its competitor for credibility and our attention.
Watch Murray's thinly veiled impatience with a Japanese photographer shouting paragraphs of instructions for Bob through an interpreter, who boils them down to three or four English words. We've seen those fluttering eyelids, heard that dry, what-are-you-talking-about inflection before. We laugh as we did whenever that was - Ghostbusters? Stripes? - yet the scenario so firmly established by Coppola causes those laughs to stick in our throats, just a bit.
We see Bob loosen up a bit at a karaoke party, and it's hard to resist thinking about his lounge singer caricature on Saturday Night Live. But there's a wisp of pain replacing the schmaltz that character would lend to Elvis Costello's What's So Funny 'Bout (Peace, Love and Understanding) and Roxy Music's More Than This. Bob chooses those songs because they speak to his feelings. Murray sings them to channel those feelings to us.
Murray's nonplussed expressions, the sight gag involving his height and a shower nozzle, the scene with an unwanted hooker, are all bits of comical business the actor used before. To be honest, Lost in Translation needs that kind of relief from the depressed personalities being showcased. The trick is keeping those laughs simple enough that we know it's a relief for Bob and Charlotte, too. People crack jokes in tense times. Coppola and Murray continually add a rueful twinge to the wisecracks, keeping Lost in Translation firmly on the dramatic side.
Some viewers may disagree after seeing Coppola's film, convinced that they laughed enough to categorize Lost in Translation as a comedy. That would be like telling jokes at a wake and forgetting why you're there. And it would be a disservice to an exquisitely balanced performance. From now on, any comedians believing they're ready for a dramatic turn will study Murray's lesson that the two points aren't that far apart.