What does it take to be considered a “serious” actor? Well, this Oscar season it is all too obvious to point at figures like Brendan Fraser and Austin Butler as prime examples. With the former staring in the ever-serious director, Darren Aronofsky’s film The Whale and the latter’s take on the eponymous rock singer Elvis Presley. Biopics and character studies become easy pickings for A-list stars hoping for a challenge and a nod from the Academy. In many cases, they are the bleeding hearts and sentimental stooges of modern-day moviemaking. The novelty of roles as history’s most intriguing and fleeting figures become fodder for award show panels. Psychological deep dives and family dramas have also become intrinsic to the formula of a good nomination. It’s all well and good for credibility in and outside of Hollywood. The “serious” actor must have range, must be dedicated, and must illustrate the heights and depths of humanity with such intensity and solemnity. Where is room for a laugh?
It is the sweeping nominations of Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s (the Daniels, respectively) film Everything Everywhere All At Once, that challenge this very notion. It is a film that is first and foremost a comedy. If judged solely as a science fiction story, then the evil climactic villain is an everything bagel. Our hero (Michelle Yeoh) is the owner of a laundromat behind on her taxes, at the end of her marriage, and at odds with her daughter. To fast-forward through the film is to be met with images of Jamie Lee Curtis and Yeoh lovingly stroking each other’s faces with hotdog-finger hands, confetti-related executions, and two rocks with googly eyes set within the great expanse of some vast, unknown land. To say the least, the movie is absurd. Yet, within the ludicrousness of raccoon hibachi chefs and fanny pack fighting the film has a heart that does that go unnoticed: a mother’s journey to accepting and understanding her daughter before it is too late.
The Daniels are no stranger to this absurdist drama. In 2016 they released Swiss Army Man. A man, Hank, (Paul Dano) at the end of his rope and stranded on an island finds a body (Daniel Radcliffe) washed ashore with seemingly magical properties. A man’s journey for survival and civilization soon turns into a budding friendship with a dead body, named Manny. Dano’s character is rescued by Manny’s propelling flatulence and compass-like erection. Manny is a jack of all trades in a survival tool belt. Hank’s fate rests in the hands of this “Swiss army” man’s competency. Swiss Army Man has its flaws, but the film remains a hilarious adventure with a steady emotional core.
Just because something is silly shouldn’t make it any less meaningful. As French Philosopher, Albert Camus, says: “The absurd is the essential concept and the first truth.” Camus is famous for his absurdist theories, and his belief that life is both ridiculous and irrational. The “first truth” of life is that it is completely absurd, so why not embrace such lunacy? The Daniels may diverge from Camus’s existential absurdism by offering their own meaning, but the humour still remains. It is the reason satire is so compelling and impactful and a comedian’s favourite joke is always an overlooked regularity of everyday life. Shining a light on the ridiculousness of life is no less true than the moving monologues of dramas and biopics. Who is to say the most affecting performances need to be inundated in tragedy, showmanship, and harsh realities?
This isn’t to say that the performances of Brendan Fraser, Cate Blanchett, Ana de Armas, and the like aren’t worthy of an Oscar nomination. They are not without talent, dedication, and craft. However, as this Oscar season is proving, there should be room left at the table for these absurdist dramas and clever comedies. Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin should be further proof of that. Laughter is the prose of accord. It is an underrated tool in the tales of reality and human truth. So, in the future, when handling such serious dilemmas, perhaps it is time to do the unexpected and greatly necessary: laugh.