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Top 10 Dramatic Performances by Comedians

Funny Actors in Serious Roles - Sometimes It Actually Works

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It comes as little surprise if you think about it, but in order to understand the more painful and vulnerable aspects of the human condition, it helps to have developed a sense of humor as a coping mechanism first. As such, some of the more impressive examinations of the self and psyche have come from people known more for eliciting tears of laughter than sadness.

Somewhat to my chagrin, I might as well have named this list the Top 10 Dramatic Roles by Male Comedians for all the good that brainstorming did in trying to include women but that's what comment sections are for. Feel free to let me know what I left out (aside from Whoopi Goldberg in The Color Purple - I just couldn't fit it on the list). Y-chromosome bias aside, here's 10 examples of traditionally comedic actors turning that smile upside down.

10. Will Ferrell

Will Ferrell
Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
It's slightly more quirky than dramatic but watching Will Ferrell play it straight (for the most part) in Stranger Than Fiction is fairly impressive. The character has a real arc and it needed that little bit of light that seems so inextinguishable in his usual on-screen personality. Looking at subsequent attempts at drama like Everything Must Go, it might be best for Will to stick to the noisy slapstick shtick that works so well for him, but the effort here was much appreciated.

9. Adam Sandler

Adam Sandler
Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
There's really no denying that Adam Sandler has fallen off the comedy truck and is rolling into a very deep ditch of absolute horse manure. His inability to realize that his comedic sensibilities should adjust as he enters more adult phases in life is only slightly less disturbing than the amount of money some of those films are able to squeeze out of audiences who apparently need the cool touch of air conditioning more than their dignity. And yet, in regards to this list, there is Punch-Drunk Love. I personally prefer his one other dramatic turn in Reign Over Me and think that's a better overall film, but this role demanded a bit more from Sandler and he didn't have Don Cheadle to lean on for support so it gets the slight nod.

8. Ben Stiller

Ben Stiller
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Before he was spending nights inside museums, Ben Stiller gave it a go in the dramatic world with Permanent Midnight. Playing a drug-addicted comedy writer may not be completely leaving the creature comforts of comedic sensibilities behind, but there's no mistaking this role for just about anything else in his career; and you're certainly not watching this for a few laughs.

7. Mo'Nique

Mo'Nique
Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images
The lone woman on the list, Mo'Nique more than holds her own against the boys. Precious served up an actor's dream of a role, that of a mother taking out her the frustration she feels about her own life on a child following in her footsteps who has somehow grown up without the same hard edge. While much of the credit may lie in the script, it takes a fearless performance to realize what's on the page, and that's exactly what got delivered to audiences.

6. Marlon Wayans

Marlon Wayans
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Few would have guessed after Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood that the youngest Wayans brother would go on to be a part of something as truly unforgettable and haunting as 2000's Requiem for a Dream - but he did. Playing sidekick to Jared Leto (also playing against expectation), there was no mistaking that Marlon Wayans and the rest of the cast had tapped into some very dark places in order make director Darren Aronofsky's vision manifest itself. It's a movie most people only watch once but it leaves an indelible impression; whether that impression is good or bad is up to you.

5. Patton Oswalt

Patton Oswalt
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Primarily a stand-up comedian, Patton Oswalt had been dipping his toe into the acting waters with small, supporting roles in a host of films and TV shows (your kids know his voice best thanks to playing Remy in Ratatouille). Heck, for you fans of truly bad sequels, he even plays a weapons expert in Blade: Trinity. However, once you watch Big Fan, there's no mistaking that Oswalt can tap into some really dark corners of his mind. A film about an obsessive NY Giants fan unsure how to deal with being badly assaulted by a member of the team, this was an indie and critical darling but didn't find the audience it deserved. You can be a part of changing that.

4. Bill Murray

Bill Murray
Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
Of late, more and more of Bill Murray's roles skew towards the dramatic and it's no real surprise that he can pull it off. Although it was iconic comedies like Caddyshack and Ghostbusters (not to mention Saturday Night Live) that launched him into the celebrity stratosphere, early in his career he also made The Razor's Edge, to varying critical success. Early in the new millennium, after what seemed like a long break from feature films (though Wes Anderson fans would disagree), Murray returned stronger than ever in writer/director Sofia Coppola's Lost In Translation. What comedic bits there are in the film only intensify the dramatic ones, and it's the subtle looks and constantly analyzing mind of Murray's character that enable a story simply about two people finding a way to battle loneliness, depression, and insomnia to resonate so strongly.

3. Will Smith

Will Smith
Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images
A box office superstar, few actors have a track record with audiences like The Fresh Prince. Although his bread and butter is injecting comedy into big budget affairs, one of his earliest film roles was one of his best, in Six Degrees of Separation. I'm hard pressed to argue subsequent work is more impressive given the lack of acting experience Smith had at the time in delivering such a powerful performance. Still, I'm going to do so and state that Seven Pounds marks his most moving role. It's a heavy film, steeped in desperation and depression but for every ounce of sadness, there is a sliver of hope and a passion for life that his character is able to give to those he comes in contact with. And watching him struggle to decide how to handle an ill-fated relationship with Rosario Dawson (in perhaps her best role as well) is like tearing a band-aid off of my heart every time I re-watch the film.

2. Robin Williams

Robin Williams
Photo by Dave Hogan/Getty Images
While his acting career is bit hit and miss (*cough* Patch Adams), Robin Williams has a number of excellent dramatic turns under his belt; Good Will Hunting, Dead Poets Society, One Hour Photo, etc. However, the role that cemented his ability as an actor in my head will always be The Fisher King. Playing a man whose sanity was destroyed by violent trauma, it's a stunning performance and if this one has gone unwatched in your life, put it on your list of things to do.

1. Jim Carrey

Jim Carrey
Photo by Frederick M Brown/Getty Images
Bursting onto the scene as a member of the In Living Color cast and then inflating his paycheck with hits like Dumb & Dumber, Ace Ventura and The Mask, it wasn't until The Truman Show that people got a real taste of the serious side underneath all the funny faces. However, his greatest performance is in director/co-writer Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. A heartbreaking tale of love, loss, and the rinse/repeat cycle created by utilizing a medical procedure to erase painful memories, this is one of my favorite films of all time. It taps into something so central and primal regarding our need to be close to someone else in such a beautiful and longing manner. Carrey's ability to represent the average guy just looking to love and be loved is at times painful to watch, but in that good way that makes all the red wine you're drinking not just tasty but necessary.
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