What Happens When Comic Actors Decide to Get Serious

There are an abundance of reasons to put “see Moneyball” on your weekend to-do list: First film since Capote from director Bennett Miller; Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillan adapting a Michael Lewis book; Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright, and Chris Pratt (aka Andy Dwyer) in supporting roles; the baby blues of one William Bradley Pitt. And then there is our old friend Jonah Hill, who has taken the opportunity here to make the leap we’ve come to expect from any comedic performer of note: the transition to “serious acting.”

Now from the looks of the trailer, it doesn’t appear that Hill is exactly doing Hamlet — Moneyball is a fast, witty, seriocomic drama, allowing Hill some comedic opportunities within a larger and more serious context. That is one way to go; there are others. After the jump, join us for a look at the strategies that Hill’s predecessors adopted in making their move towards drama, and how they fared.

Strategy 1: If you’re getting serious, get dead serious.
Example: Bill Murray in The Razor’s Edge; Robin Williams in Seize the Day

Murray used his participation in Ghostbusters as a bargaining chip to get Columbia Pictures to finance his dream project, an adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s 1944 novel (previously filmed in 1946, with Tyrone Power in the lead). Though Murray interjected some of his dry wit into the script (which he co-wrote with director John Byrum), he mostly played the role absolutely straight-faced—to its detriment. “Murray,” wrote Roger Ebert, “who is usually such a superb actor, has taken the wrong path in this performance, giving us moments when everybody in the film and in the audience is moved, except Murray. There are times when he seems downright obstinate in his performance, giving us a ramrod posture, a poker face, and eyes that will not let us inside. Perhaps, in his desire to make a break with the comic roles we know him for, he was overreacting.”

Robin Williams — who had done dramatic work at Julliard and appeared in the mostly-serious The World According to Garp — took a similarly solemn approach to his first full-on dramatic role, playing salesman Tommy Wilhelm in a made-for-PBS adaptation of Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day (a phrase associated with a later, better-known Williams film). He fared better than Murray; “Williams throws himself entirely into his character,” wrote Variety, “and his desperation is palpable.”