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Overcasting, when film casts overflow with familiar faces.

Overcasting, when film casts overflow with familiar faces. (photo)

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Over at Movieline, Christopher Rosen bemusedly chews over the casting news for “Horrible Bosses,” a comedy due next summer that — in the absence of other news — is being wildly anticipated.

It does sound pretty awesome, insofar as it ups the “Office Space” stakes and has disgruntled employees actually killing their bosses instead of merely smashing fax machines — the recession comedy we’ve all been waiting for! Arriving, alas, too late.

But the point Rosen wants to make is that “Horrible Bosses” might be overcast: with Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Aniston, Jason Bateman, Colin Farrell, Donald Sutherland and Jamie Foxx (though I refuse to believe Jason Sudekis is actually anything like “a star”), he wonders if there’s a correlation between an over-abundance of big names and a less-than-quality product — or worse, if this is a film a la “Valentine’s Day” that compensates for innate shoddiness with marquee firepower.

There have always been movies that overdose on stars for their own sake, to the point where there’s barely any room for a plot. There were a whole raft of these during World War II, when studios issued what were basically variety shows with thin romantic plots to tie them together. This lead to some bizarre sights — the perfectly pleasant “Stage Door Canteen” ends with Katharine Hepburn delivering a rousing wartime speech, a very uncharacteristic moment in her career — but generally it was a pleasant way to combine propaganda, charity and studio self-promotion.

06292010_followtheboys1.jpgStudios would pull together their rosters and donate much of the money to charity: Universal had “Follow The Boys,” Warner Bros. had “Thank Your Lucky Stars” and “Hollywood Canteen” (the latter of which gave 40% of its profits to the actual titular canteen), Paramount had “Star Spangled Rhythm” and MGM had “Thousands Cheer.” All now act as decent time capsules, and then served handily to promote the studios’ wares and thespians for the post-war era.

Stacked-deck casting has also been used as a form of spectacle to rival whatever expensive stuff going on on-screen, as practiced in 1956’s “Around The World In 80 Days” (in which Frank Sinatra’s cameo is basically one shot) and 1963’s “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” whose cast list is so big Wikipedia splits it into three parts. And of course there are the lousy Eurotrash movies made after “Airport” designed to package multiple names for cross-cultural revenue — they’re endearingly cheesy now.

What’s missing in all this, though, is the good old character actor. All those studios in the ’30s and ’40s had a stable of odd types to fill in the margins with their (usually comic) specialties, rather than plugging in stars galore. These were guys like Guy Kibbee, whose niche Wikipedia nicely synopsizes as “daft and jovial characters” and who had a form of toad-in-the-hole named after him.

There were guys like the entire original cast of “The Wizard of Oz,” prolific Broadway and vaudeville vets all, where physical and character-based eccentricities could be smoothly adapted for multiple films. It was good for women too, like Margaret Dumont, who practically became the fifth Marx Brother while playing easily shocked matrons over and over.

06282010_koteas.jpgThe contemporary equivalent of this kind of player would be someone like Elias Koteas, whose features are just distinctive enough to seem sinister. Still, it’s impossible to imagine Koteas as a widely beloved bit player — to most viewers, he’ll just be That One Guy.

A lot of movies now are stuffed around the fringes with wildly overqualified players seemingly as a form of thespian insurance, like Ian Holm — distinguished Harold Pinter interpreter reduced to looking merely seasick for a small part in “The Aviator.” This form of overcasting has its consolations; rare is the Hollywood movie without a pleasant surprise of an appearance (I don’t know what Alfred Molina will bring to “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” for example, though I’m sure he’ll bring his A-game regardless).

The downside is that — aside from comedies, which have more capable supporting specialists than ever in recent memory — dramatic films lack memorable, vaudevillian types. It’s not that the air-brushing of lead actors is a bad thing in and of itself; who doesn’t like to gawk at pretty people? It’s that the fringes themselves have been blanded out, filled with interchangeable bodies lusting after stardom.

[Photos: “Office Space,” 20th Century Fox, 1999; Marlene Dietrich and Orson Welles in “Follow the Boys,” Universal Pictures, 1944; “Shooter,” Paramount, 2007]

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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