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.

The (Perpetual) Kids Are All Right

(Copyright Gramercy Pictures)

Sometimes an actor gets cast in his perfect role early, rather than having to build up his resume first. Such is the case of the much-lauded, now-classic casting of Matthew McConaughey as Wooderson in “Dazed and Confused”. This oft-quoted role made McConaughey a star, and cemented his reputation as a laid-back, hysterically funny performer who could straddle sexy and sleazy with ease. On the page alone, Wooderson is repulsive in nature, yet appealing because of his humor. Embodied by McConaughey, though, he becomes inexplicably magnetic.

There are so many iconic McConaughey scenes to choose from in this movie, but my favorite is the one above. The audio comes before the visual, Wooderson’s rallying cry of “all right all right all right”, all in that unmistakable drawl, incites laughter before he even slides into the frame. Then, as the idiot in hot pursuit, he’s sincerely on the make — “Say, you need a ride?” he says to Cynthia, the cute driver of the neighboring car. She almost seems to contemplate taking him up on his unobservant offer. McConaughey plays this straight: Wooderson is the elder slacker here, with utmost authority over the neighborhood and those less experienced in the ways of the town and its entertainments. With this crew, age is enough — and he’s just old enough to still be cool, not yet too old to be a complete loser (in the eyes of these beholders, at least — the audience’s eyes are an entirely different story).

It’s quite a sly performance — McConaughey has to toe the line of ultimate audience awareness, in-progress recognition/development of the character, and the naivete of Wooderson’s fellow characters. Wooderson knows he only has a limited time left before he becomes an all-out joke (nodded to in the infamous I get older, they stay the same age┬áline). Soon, he’ll either have to accept his role as a buffoon or grow up and reinvent himself, with all the risks either option entails.

In the meantime, though, Wooderson knows he’s in his prime, with the perfect trifecta of influence, authority, and respect — in regard to those he cares about impressing, anyway. McConaughey’s performance directly pays tribute to the glee that results from such recognition, and the awareness of ┬áthis trifecta’s very limited shelf life. Wooderson relishes the fact that he holds such power, even if it is temporary, and McConaughey expresses that through sheer physical confidence: See it in the mischievous twinkle in his eye (present in nearly every scene), a lazy arm draped out of an open car window, an “I own this place” stroll through a pool hall.

The audience knows this guy is probably going to choose the former option and descend into local joke territory. He’s the ultimate slacker, content to hold steady, with nowhere better to go and no challenge worth pursuing… and damn if one doesn’t want to watch the movie again and again, just to spend more time in the company of this immensely fun dope, in the era when the town was his.

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