Last week’s return of “Saturday Night At The Movies” looked at the pressure on every single SNL cast member to somehow become a movie star, something that is statistically unlikely. Instead, when they make the jump to movies, most SNL cast members do it as supporting players, and in many ways, that’s the career to chase, the goal you want to attain.
When Randy Quaid joined the cast of “Saturday Night Live” in 1985, he already had a long and impressive resume as one of the most interesting young character actors in his age range. It was somewhat surprising that he would join the show, based on how long he’d already been working and, yes, because not a lot of Oscar nominees decide that a few seasons on SNL is exactly what they should do to follow up on that sort of momentum.
Look at this list of films he appeared in before SNL:
“The Last Picture Show”
“What’s Up, Doc?”
“The Last Detail”
“The Apprenticeship Of Duddy Kravitz”
“The Missouri Breaks”
“Bound For Glory”
“The Long Riders”
“Of Mice And Men”
That’s a real actor. That’s a guy with range and chops, and some of the most dynamic young filmmakers working wanted to put him in their films. Then he made “National Lampoon’s Vacation” in 1983, and thanks to the crazy brilliance of his work as Cousin Eddie, it was possible to forget he’d ever been in anything else as anything else. It was a huge cultural flashpoint moment for Quaid, and if you heard conversations about “Vacation” that summer, while it was in theaters and hot and new, you would have heard people talking about the scene with Aunt Edna, the scene with the dog, and Cousin Eddie. Everything else works, and the film was a big audience hit. But those stand-out moments, those groin-kicks of extra-added-bit-of-darkness really made the film feel dangerous. It’s not, of course, and if you look at it now, you can see the John Hughes fingerprints that are all over the screenplay, the signature way of looking at family dynamics that underlines the America that Hughes wrote about in his personal work. Cousin Eddie became a simplified grotesque over time thanks to the work of other directors, but in “Christmas Vacation,” at least, they balance his gleeful lack of social grace with a genuine heart that defuses how disgusting he is.
One of my other favorite supporting Quaid performances is in the little-seen “Quick Change,” co-written and co-directed by Bill Murray and Howard Franklin, and starring Murray and Geena Davis. It’s based on a great little Jay Cronley novel, and it’s a hyper-clever bank robbery movie that depends on the chemistry between Murray, Quaid, and Davis, over the course of a long and complicated day. Quaid’s gradual meltdown is a thing of beauty, and Murray seems to get dryer and dryer as Quaid gets more and more frantic. They feed off each other’s energy in really wonderful ways. Quaid’s quivering humanity reminds us in the whole movie that things could indeed go terribly wrong, important since Murray seems to be like a live-action Bugs Bunny, capable of skating any situation with a wry remark and some expertly-spun bullshit.
Quaid is an unusual case, though, because he did have all that time working in film built up before SNL. For most actors, it’s the other way around. SNL is their big break, and whatever comes after that is a result of the show being part of their lives. I actually started thinking about this when I was at Cannes and Siobahn Fallon showed up in “We Need To Talk About Kevin.” Fallon’s one of the people who started around the same time as Farley and Ellen Cleghorne and Tim Meadows… an early ’90s veteran of the show. Fallon’s had a really versatile career, working almost nonstop it seems, and the fact that she can drop into a film like “Funny Games” as easily as she can drop into “Baby Mama” is what keeps her so busy.
I decided to look at what other films this summer have SNL cast members appearing in them. Obviously, “Bridesmaids” is the biggest thing so far this summer to have tapped into the talent pool, and it’s been very nice watching this smart, sprawling, funny movie find its place in the market. There were no guarantees with that one, and now it feels like Kristen Wiig could get something made based on her presence in it. It feels like she’s finally in that spot where what she wants becomes a priority for a studio. The rest of the summer, though, it’s really only Jason Sudeikis who has a big star vehicle coming, with “Horrible Bosses” already picking up great buzz. What other alumni are appearing in summer movies between now and August, and looking at the types of roles they’re playing, what does it say about the show as a talent pool?
Molly Shannon has a very small role in “Bad Teacher,” but none of the rest of the cast is a graduate of the show, unless you count Justin Timberlake, who seems to view SNL as a place he’s made his own. I’m sad that Molly never really clicked with audiences in a big movie, because I love her strange, spacey energy. I’d cast her in straight dramas just because there’s so much raw nerve anything could happen energy going on in everything she does. Instead, she seems to show up in small parts in things. Her last major film role, which I liked, was “Year Of The Dog” in 2007.
Right now, since there is a whole genre in Hollywood that is popular in kids movies called the “CGI animated things that talk to much larger live-action comedy stars and then do wacky things in montages”, you can make a good living just doing voice-over work for these types of films. This summer, there are two big ones, since I’m pretty sure Mr. Popper’s Penguins don’t actually talk to him. First is “The Smurfs,” and Kenan Thompson plays Greedy Smurf while Fred Armisen is voicing Brainy Smurf. While “The Smurfs” looks awful, it doesn’t look any better or worse than the also-terrifying “The Zookeeper.” That new trailer is just jaw-dropping, and the animals are voiced by, among others, Adam Sandler as Donald the Monkey and Maya Rudolph as Mollie the Giraffe, along with Jim Bruer as a crow. For all of these folks, it’s fairly easy money, and I’ll bet they all treat it seriously and give it 100% in terms of trying to make that sort of formula commercial fare feel sincere. You hire these folks because you hope they’ll riff and work at it until they make their lines funny, and most of the time, they will.a
Andy Samberg shows up in “Friends With Benefits,” which makes sense based on his chemistry with Justin Timberlake. If those two ever decide to team up and just make Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis films for a decade, whatever studio they do it with will have to build a new building to store all their spare cash.
I mentioned Sudeikis last week in talking about people who haven’t quite made the jump to movie star yet, but it’s obvious that there are a lot of people who believe in Sudeikis, who are already working to make that happen. I think he’s got the goods. I think he made “Hall Pass” better than it should have been, and I think we’ve just barely seen what he can do on film. And if you haven’t seen him play opposite Charlie Day in “Going The Distance,” then you really should. They’re one of the reasons I’m excited about “Horrible Bosses,” and about Seth Gordon continuing to work off the karma from “Four Christmases,” something he’s done well with work on shows like “Community” and “Parks and Rec.” Him directing Sudeikis and the rest of the ensemble cast has me thinking that “Horrible Bosses” could something special and great. It should also help that he’s hosting the MTV Movie Awards tomorrow, a high-profile gig at just the right moment. If he does well, he could carry a lot of that goodwill into the theater with him for audiences.
Finally, there’s David Koechner. I know Dave, well enough to have broken bread with him and his family, and he’s a great comedy brain, a resource vastly under-tapped so far onscreen. Seeing him in a new “Final Destination” movie is entertaining just in the hypothetical, and I hope they give him a really spectacular Rube Goldberg death sequence. More than that, though, I hope they give him something to do before he dies. Koechner wasn’t on SNL for long, and I think the show was poorer for it. If they’d only figured out more to do with Dave, and if they’d made use of the fact that he can play real hulking malice just as easily as he can play gleeful hilarious lunacy, he could have been a valuable and long-lasting cast member. Happens all the time, though. People become very different when they graduate from the show, and you realize how sometimes SNL just doesn’t make good use of somebody.
There is no “right way” or “wrong way” to move from SNL to the movies, but it’s always interesting to see the various shapes of careers as people make the transition. Later this summer, we’re going to have a piece I’m very excited about as part of this series, a look at a project by one of SNL’s most controversial figures that never quite came together. I’m more excited about this than I was about last year’s look at “The Saturday Night Live Movie.”
As always, thanks for reading, and we hope this keeps you engaged during SNL’s annual hiatus. In the meantime…
“Bad Teacher” is in session June 24, 2011.
“Horrible Bosses” arrives in theaters July 8, 2011, as does “Zookeeper.”
“Friends With Benefits” opens July 22, 2011.
“The Smurfs” opens a week later on July 29, 2011.
“Final Destination 5” will be in theaters August 12, 2011.
And for those of you new to this series…
“Saturday Night At The Movies” runs here every Saturday night. Appropriately enough.