So many comedians don't really play well with others. They're mostly scene-stealers with little regard for anyone who gets in their way. So it's always a treat to find some that click together. If they click, their connection usually passes on to the audience. Two mega-comedians, Adam Sandler & Seth Rogen, team up for the first time in this week's Funny People. It remains to be seen just what kind of chemistry they'll have, or if it deserves to be repeated, but in any case, it's a good time to revisit some of cinema's greatest comedy team-ups. [Note: I thought I would stay modern and therefore exclude Martin & Lewis, Laurel & Hardy, Fields & West, Abbott & Costello, Hepburn & Grant, Hepburn & Tracy, etc. Just because it goes without saying.]
1. Simon Pegg & Nick Frost
They're friends in real life and it shows in their films Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Hot Fuzz (2007). Pegg gets to do all the heroic stuff, and the romantic stuff, and he's great at it; his character arc and his performance in Shaun of the Dead are remarkably rich and subtle. But Frost has the hard job. He must balance his persona of annoying slacker with lovable sidekick, throwing in just a tiny hint of homoerotic attachment to his friend. This is an A+ in chemistry.
2. Zooey Deschanel & Will Ferrell
For years I've been looking for a way to describe Deschanel's uniquely appealing performance style, and the best I've been able to come up with is that she exists outside the material, finding a way to slyly comment upon it even as she's immersed in it. In this way she appears almost prophetic; if she likes one of her male co-stars, she can let us in on it before the guy knows. On the other hand, we have Ferrell, who co-starred most effectively with Deschanel in Elf (2003) and Winter Passing (2005), who does practically the opposite. He seems to disappear into a reservoir of childhood innocence, tapping into adolescent fears and desires and channeling them through his all-too-grown-up body. Goodness knows why this off-kilter pair works so well together, but they really, really do. More, please!
3. Dan Aykroyd & just about anybody
Of course, Akyroyd was John Belushi's friend and performance partner in many TV sketches, and in three films, 1941 (1979), The Blues Brothers (1980) and Neighbors (1981). It took a generous spirit to share space with the larger-than-life Belushi and come out the other side. Following Belushi's death, and after Aykroyd's solo career failed to catch fire (Doctor Detroit, anyone?) he found himself re-writing some old Belushi projects for other actors. He shared screen time with Bill Murray (Ghostbusters), Chevy Chase (Spies Like Us) and Eddie Murphy (Trading Places) to great success, always allowing his co-stars to shine, but himself playing more than just bland straight man and getting some deserved laughs. Years later, he became a delightful foil to John Cusack in Grosse Pointe Blank and War, Inc. He even earned an Oscar nomination in 1989 for making Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy look good in Driving Miss Daisy.
4. Woody Allen & Diane Keaton
They really don't seem like much of a match: the neurotic, high-strung New Yorker, and the nutty, carefree hippie-type. But they hooked up in real-life for a long showbiz relationship and a highly successful working relationship besides. Keaton was in many of Allen's "earlier, funnier" films, Play It Again, Sam (1972), Sleeper (1973) and Love and Death (1975), and she won a Best Actress Oscar in 1977 for Annie Hall, for charming her co-star with the line, "la-di-da, la-di-da." Basically, it was the beginning of the formula that endures today. She gets his attention with her quirky behavior, and eventually softens him up. Keaton also appeared in Allen's drama Interiors (1978) and the gorgeous masterpiece Manhattan (1979), as well as a post-breakup singing cameo in Radio Days (1987) and a post-Mia transitional leading role in Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993).
5. Robert De Niro & Charles Grodin
Forget the fretting Billy Crystal in those stupid Analyze This and That films. Grodin's shifty deadpan in this film, plus De Niro's simmering reactions, has made Midnight Run (1988) a kind of quasi-classic. It's too bad that no one has ever bothered to match them up again.
6. Tommy Lee Jones & Will Smith
Imagine straight man Bud Abbott as a deadpan badass like Tommy Lee Jones with sunglasses and a huge, intergalactic gun. Then, rather than Lou Costello being an ineffectual, accidental hero, he's Will Smith, with a huge, untamed ego. And instead of a third-rate Frankenstein monster, they take on some first-rate slimy aliens in Men in Black (1997). Both Smith and Jones are tough guys, so they eventually find some common ground and even a genuine respect for one another. But the real key is Jones' brief, clipped line readings, combined with Smith's motormouth joking; it's like a symphony of cool. This team loses major points for a dreadful sequel, however.
7. George Clooney & Brad Pitt
They didn't get much screen time together in Burn After Reading, but I'm thinking of their conversational shorthand in Ocean's Thirteen, probably built up after spending hours and hours together tuning into the same weird, superstar wavelength; you just know that these guys hang out at each other's houses, laughing at all kinds of things the rest of us could never understand. But it sure is fun to watch!