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Tears of the Clowns: On Peter Farrelly and Adam McKay’s Pivots to Drama

They are responsible for some of the biggest laugh riots of the past 30 years. Recently, they’ve trained their eyes toward more dramatic fare with ‘Vice’ and ‘Green Book,’ and the Academy is taking note. But the prestige films of these two class clowns have some serious differences.

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“When you make Dumb and Dumber, you never expect to get an award,” the filmmaker Peter Farrelly said last week at the Producers Guild of America Awards, where he was accepting the top honor for his movie Green Book. And yet, even amid the controversies that are still plaguing the film—pushback from the family of composer Don Shirley over Shirley’s portrayal; an anti-Muslim tweet that cowriter Nick Vallelonga posted several years ago—he may have cause to expect a few more. Tuesday morning, Green Book was nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Original Screenplay.

Farrelly’s pivot from writer/director of raunchy goofball comedies (along with his brother and longtime collaborator, Bobby) to cowriter/director of an Oscar-nominated prestige film is one of the year’s more surreal Hollywood stories: “From the Oscar-nominated director of Osmosis Jones” is now a factually correct phrase. Green Book—which tells the story of black composer Dr. Don Shirley, his unlikely white chauffeur Tony “Lip” Vallelonga, and their vaguely true road trip through the American South in the 1960s—is hardly the type of movie anyone would expect from one of the Farrelly brothers. Still, Farrelly’s not exactly an anomaly in this year’s Oscar race. In the past few years, Adam McKay—the Upright Citizens Brigade–Saturday Night Live alum behind Anchorman (1 and 2), Talladega Nights, and Step Brothers—has successfully reinvented himself as an incendiary and fiercely political Hollywood auteur, proving that there is indeed a pathway from scrotum jokes to the Oscar podium. Three years ago, McKay and his cowriter Charles Randolph took home the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for their freewheeling, mischievously intelligent take on the financial crisis, The Big Short. This year, Vice—McKay’s madcap Dick Cheney biopic—is up for a whopping eight Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay—in a few categories he’ll duke it out with Farrelly himself.

Filmmakers making the shift from slapstick comedy to more high-minded fare certainly has precedent in Hollywood: In some sense you can trace it all the way back to Charlie Chaplin, who found popular success as the Tramp but wasn’t recognized by the Oscars until he took on Hitler in 1940’s The Great Dictator. (The first half of Woody Allen’s career played out a bit like this too: The Academy didn’t acknowledge him until his shift to the relative gravitas of Annie Hall.) McKay, though, has said that his move away from broad comedy is a reaction to the specific chaos of the 21st century. “I’ve never dealt with a tone like this, and I don’t think it’s by accident,” he told The New York Times Magazine late last year, speaking of Vice. “We’re living in a world with a tone that none of us has ever experienced. Pipe bombs are being sent to the leaders of a political party, and the guy who made Dilbert is saying, ‘You know the bombs were really made by left-wingers because they didn’t work.’” When the Dilbert guy is shifting his concerns to commentating on domestic terrorism, Adam McKay feeling the need to make a movie like Vice makes a certain kind of sense. “I’m suspicious of anything that feels like an old form,” McKay added. “We’re discovering new styles and forms, because this era we’re in demands it.”

Still, McKay’s political consciousness didn’t sprout overnight. According to that Times profile, he grew up “on food stamps and was raised in suburban Pennsylvania by his waitress single mother,” developing an acute eye for inequality early on. Matt Besser, a cofounding member of McKay’s improv troupe, the Upright Citizens Brigade, has recalled that “Adam was definitely the most political member of the group.” Some of his early improv performances were radical enough to alienate portions of his audience (a recurring character of his at UCB was “Noam Chomsky As a Second-Grade Substitute Teacher”), but they all seemed to come from a desire to spark debate and stimulate thought. “The idea is just to wake them up,” his wife Shira Piven said of McKay’s relationship with his audience, in a 2015 New York profile. “To surprise them in a visceral way.” Vice certainly makes good on this aim; it barely gives the viewer time for a deep breath. There are more straightforwardly comedic moments, sure, but they’re nestled between such confrontational devices as an extended Shakespearean dialogue about Dick and Lynne Cheney’s thirst for power, an incredibly graphic sequence of open-heart surgery, and a car accident so unexpected that it very nearly prompted me to require open-heart surgery. Visceral surprise indeed.

Farrelly’s comedic chops work to a different effect in Green Book: They help him put a difficult and complicated story in a familiar (and thus more easily marketable) package. Of his attempts to sell Green Book to the studio, he recently told Vulture, “It was still tricky because of the race elements, and we went through a couple of places where they didn’t think they could sell it overseas. I thought that was just nuts. So I was like, ‘What? Are you crazy? This is a buddy movie.’ They’re like, ‘Yeah, race movies don’t do well overseas.’ I said, ‘Well, certain race movies, and this breaks the mold because it’s a buddy film, and a good buddy film.’”

One of the main objections voiced by the Shirley family, though, is that the truth didn’t fit so neatly into a limited genre: The two men weren’t exactly “buddies.” “It was an employer-employee relationship,” Dr. Shirley’s sister-in-law told Shadow and Act. “[A professional relationship] was the only kind of relationship that [Dr. Shirley] ever had with any of the people he worked with.” Eighty-two-year-old Maurice Shirley, Don’s last living brother, added, “You asked what kind of relationship he had with Tony? He fired Tony! Which is consistent with the many firings he did with all of his chauffeurs over time.” Green Book does not address this unsentimental ending to the “buddy” relationship, let alone dig into the later years of Shirley’s life, instead framing the tale as an isolated recollection of That One Time Tony Vallelonga Had a Black Friend in 1962.

When Green Book won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture (Musical or Comedy)—beating out, among other films, Vice—Farrelly summed up the philosophy behind the film. “This story, when I heard it, gave me hope,” he said, vehemently enough to silence the outro music. “And I wanted to share that hope with you. Because we’re still living in divided times, maybe more so than ever, and that’s who this movie’s for: It’s for everybody. If Don Shirley and Tony Vallelonga can find common ground, we all can. All we have to do is talk, and to not judge people by their differences but to look for what we have in common.”

All we have to do is talk. Those of us who did not believe the truth to be quite so simple—or did not believe Green Book to be a powerful enough movie to solve centuries’ worth of social problems—were at least allowed to project our feelings onto a beautifully timed cutaway to Black Panther director Ryan Coogler.

Both McKay and Farrelly have said that their experiences cutting their teeth in comedy attuned them to audience expectations and reactions: When test screening a movie like Step Brothers or There’s Something About Mary, you either get the laugh or you don’t. This does not necessarily mean that directing comedies has taught them how to pander, though; it is valuable in any genre to hold an audience’s attention and to know when you’re losing them. “If you sit in rooms like this too long,” McKay’s editor told the Times, while cutting Vice, “you lose perspective.” Many of the directors behind more traditionally “serious” films might learn a thing or two from this observation. But at the same time, it’s worth noting who is able to take the risks involved to make these types of artistic pivots: McKay and Farrelly are both white men who have already proved to studios that they can turn a profit. (McKay’s films have grossed a combined $896.5 million worldwide; the Farrelly brothers’ have grossed nearly $1.5 billion.) Their privilege and financial leverage gives them a certain permission to step out of their comfort zones.

McKay’s life’s goal, as described in the Times profile, is “figuring out how to get audiences to enjoy the taste of vegetables.” He is producing an Amazon documentary series tentatively titled This Giant Beast That Is the Global Economy, will direct a movie about Silicon Valley fraudster Elizabeth Holmes (played by Jennifer Lawrence), and hopes to someday figure out how to make a movie about climate change. I look forward to these projects, whether or not they succeed—the exciting thing about McKay in this second stage of his movie career is that he does not seem afraid of failure. Vice, in the end, did not quite work for me. It often felt like McKay was trying to heap way too much onto a single plate, and that he had not yet found the right recipe to balance candy with vegetables. Still, I appreciate his willingness to use comedy as a wrecking ball to old structures. Plus, even if he sometimes overstates the subversion of his comedy (“Talladega Nights was about this weird, stubborn pride that was showing up in America, kind of the corporate takeover of Southern pride. Step Brothers was about how consumerism turns grown-ups into little kids”), he is willing to concede that a movie is not only a movie.

Still, there’s something pernicious about the way Green Book seems to hover between the conventions of “comedy” and “drama,” between lightness and weight. Like its director, the movie gets to have it both ways. It is allowed to revel in the advantages of being a “prestige” movie, with its accolades serving as occasion for Farrelly to make grandstanding exhortations that we all just get along. But when it’s criticized too pointedly, it can easily fall back on the opposite argument: “It’s just a good-hearted buddy comedy, from the guy who made Dumb and Dumber!” “I’m sure there will be some criticism that [the film] is not authentic because it’s not dark enough,” Farrelly told Newsweek, “But that’s not my style.” Lighten up—it’s only a movie, right?

Green Book remains buoyant throughout, with appealingly whimsical humor—with Tony’s bluff ribaldry and Don’s dry wit,” New Yorker critic Richard Brody wrote in his review. “It’s that very humor that keeps the movie floating, weightlessly, above the appalling bedrock of its ponderous assumptions.” To me, this gets at the core difference between Hollywood’s two class clowns–turned–Oscar darlings, who don’t look quite so similar when you get close up. McKay uses comedy like an awkwardly timed airhorn. Farrelly uses it like a narcotic, the kind that makes you sleep well through a turbulent night.