More Than a Bit

(Copyright Universal Pictures, Apatow Productions)

It might be clear by now that one outstanding line reading is enough to endear a performer to me forever. A stellar delivery often comes from an emphasis on an unexpected word that might be otherwise downplayed and/or an unusual vocal inflection, combined with controlled body language (broad for comedy, buttoned up for drama). Together, such technique often creates a performance that’s memorable — and an oft-quoted line.

Take Leslie Mann in “The 40 Year Old Virgin”. She has a bit part — so small, I had to look up the character’s name on IMDB. (It’s Nicky, FYI.) She’s in the movie for no more than 15 minutes, I’d guess. But in this compressed amount of time, Mann becomes a master of economy: We learn she’s been betrayed and heartbroken, all confessed during a drunken joyride as she careens Steve Carrell around Los Angeles. We learn the night’s bachelorette party was for Pam, Nicky’s “best” friend, who happens to be marrying Nicky’s ex. Over the course of the evening, words were exchanged between the friends, retold in my favorite line, which Mann delivers at the 1:15-1:20 mark:

“And Pam’s like ‘You are such a B-I-T-C-H, bitch.’ And I’m like, ‘You’re the bitch, bitch!'”

Mann doesn’t say this line so much as growl it. Note how she also stabs the air for emphasis, and Carrell withdraws a little with each movement.

I’ve seen this movie countless times, and it’s one of my all-time favorite comedies. On first viewing, I may not have taken notice of the skill underlying Mann’s performance, of how many laughs she’s able to pack into her brief screen time.

On repeated viewings, I find myself eagerly anticipating this sequence, and all because of Mann. She may not have the biggest role, or even one that’s particularly crucial to the overall plot or character development, but damn if she doesn’t make me guffaw every single time. This scene is a fantastic example of an actor working with whatever time she has on screen, and absolutely making the most of it. Had there been budget or time constraints, one could see this scene potentially ending up on the cutting-room floor. Yet because of Mann’s unique touch, it becomes indispensable.

This post first appeared on the Good Taste and a Sense of Humor blog.

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