6. Eddie Murphy in “Dream Girls”
Along the same lines as Myers came his fellow “Saturday Night Live” alum using the skills that made him famous there in an all new setting, and transforming James Brown’s Celebrity Hot Tub Party into irrepressible soul singer James “Thunder” Early got Murphy nominated for an Academy Award. The Thunder Man’s inability to rebrand himself as a crooner, coupled with his addictions and adulteries, painted the picture of a fading star who had to watch his backup singers eclipse him. However, you really just got the sense that this was the validation of the singing career Murphy always wanted but never quite mastered.
7. Will Ferrell in “Stranger Than Fiction”
The idea of a man slowly realizing that he is nothing more than a character in a story someone else is writing sounds like the premise of a wacky screwball yukfest, especially if Will Ferrell is starring as the protagonist. However, in this 2006 Marc Forster dramedy, the pathos that involved in that surreal situation is deeply explored not only by Ferrell’s Harold Crick trying to belay his certain demise, but also Emma Thompson’s author Kay Eiffel, who is agonizing over what she’s going to do to her beloved central character. For more on Ferrell’s dramatic abilities, see also “Everything Must Go.”
8. Steve Martin in “The Spanish Prisoner”
The original wild and crazy guy famously dialed down that old schtick and gracefully became an erudite sophisticate with a flair for the absurd, but he remains primarily known for being the first rock star of stand-up comedy. He’s done his share of dramatic work, such as “Shopgirl” and “Grand Canyon,” but one of his lesser known efforts is as Jimmy Dell, the slick, villainous con man who takes Campbell Scott for a mind-bending ride in this David Mamet piece. You don’t think “bad guy” when you think of Steve Martin – not even in “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” but here, that likeable persona makes him the perfect antagonist, because no one ever expects it of him.
9. Adam Sandler in “Punch Drunk Love”
Once again, this is an example of a “SNL” veteran basically taking one of his standard characters – in this case, a very twitchy weirdo with crazy tendencies – and playing it for darkness instead of laughs, and you don’t get much darker than Paul Thomas Anderson. He illustrates how the real – if slightly surreal – world would treat one of these oddball Sandler concoctions, and it ain’t well. However, there is a light at the end of Barry Egan’s tunnel in the form of the equally twisted Emily Watson, and it turns out this is actually one of PTA’s lighter efforts. For more on Sandler’s ability to go darker, see “Funny People.”
10. Steve Carrell in “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World”
Carell’s well-versed in the ridiculous, having kicked around as far back as “The Dana Carvey Show” as one of the Germans Who Say Nice Things, and he rose up through “The Daily Show” and became the immortal Brick Tamland in “Anchorman.” Judd Apatow’s “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” helped to ground him with the heart of an everyman, and now he can do pretty much anything. His understated performance as Dodge Peterson, an insurance adjuster whose wife runs desperately away from him the moment after they learn the world will end in three weeks, may have turned off some who expected this film to be more comedic than dramatic, but really, they should’ve known better. He’s even able to sell his unlikely-unless-in-the-event-of-apocalypse love story with Keira Knightley as an experience that will really stir up your feel-meats. Keep an eye out for his turn as a jerk antagonist in “The Way Way Back” as well.