America loves its losers. Sure, we may live in the richest, most powerful country in the world, but there's a special place in our hearts for the also-rans, the hapless folks who always seem to come up short, no matter how hard they try. It's an affinity is reflected across our cultural spectrum, from the Chicago Cubs to Charlie Brown to Al Gore*. On the silver screen, the Loveable Loser has been a mainstay of comedies for decades, enjoying a nice renaissance in recent years with the Judd Apatow comedies 40-Year-Old-Virgin, Knocked Up and Superbad.
Here's a list of some of our favorite cinematic losers:
10. Ben Stiller as Ted Stroehmann - There's Something about Mary
Before the nation contracted a nasty case of Stiller Fatigue -- a consequence of the actor appearing in every studio comedy made between 1998 and 2004 -- Ben Stiller unquestionably held the coveted title of America's Favorite Schmuck. In There's Something about Mary, Stiller definitively demonstrated his uncanny, almost inhuman ability to withstand endless amounts of humiliation and abuse. It's a skill that would come in handy years later, enabling him to survive the critical drubbing handed to Along Came Polly and Duplex.
9. Johnny Depp as Ed Wood - Ed Wood
Tim Burton's black-and-white biopic of Wood, the eccentric B-movie director responsible for some of the worst-reviewed films of all time, is surprisingly inspirational, thanks largely to Depp's energetic performance. It's impossible not to root for the wide-eyed Wood as he pursues his dream, the gleam in his eye unhindered by the constant barrage of criticism hurled his way. He may be delusional -- and more than a little creepy -- but his unbridled optimism in the face of failure after crushing failure is truly endearing.
8. Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer and Michael McKean as Nigel Tufnel, Derek Smalls and David St. Hubbins - This is Spinal Tap
The original and still the greatest of the Christopher Guest mockumentaries, Spinal Tap's tale of over-the-hill rockers clinging desperately to their rapidly-fading glory established a winning formula that would become a trademark of Guest's ensemble comedies for years to come: a diverse collection of oddballs, united by their shared pursuit of some entirely trivial (to us, at least) endeavor.
7. Seth Rogen as Ben Stone - Knocked Up
A friend of mine, well-known for his fondness for mind-expanding substances, summed up Rogen's performance perfectly when he raved, "What I liked about Knocked Up was that you could tell that those guys had actually used the drugs that they're talking about." Indeed, it's that authenticity that lands Rogen atop Apatow's distinguished list of loveable loser protagonists, ahead of 40-Year-Old-Virgin's Steve Carell and Superbad's Jonah Hill and Michael Cera. Given the right circumstances (i.e. copious consumption of alcohol), it's entirely plausible that a schlub like Rogen could land a hottie like Katherine Heigl -- at least once.
6. Will Ferrell as Frank "The Tank" Ricard - Old School
Frat guy Frank tried to change his ways. He got married, moved to suburbia and resigned himself to weekends spent at The Pottery Barn and Bed, Bath and Beyond. But domesticity just didn't suit him. Like a wild animal held in captivity, Frank wouldn't be right until he was back in his native habitat, chugging beers and streaking across college campuses. In the end, when his buddies Mitch (Luke Wilson) and Beanie (Vince Vaughn) leave to resume their normal lives, Frank chooses to remain at the frat house. It takes a big man to admit that he's utterly, hopelessly immature.
5. William H. Macy as Bernie Lootz - The Cooler
Ok, The Cooler is by no means a comedy, but Macy's turn as a professional jinx in Wayne Kramer's Vegas love story is simply too good to be left off the list. As Lootz, Macy finally found the perfect platform to show off those signature traits he'd been steadily honing in supporting roles throughout his career: the nervousness, the pained expression, the suppressed anger. It's disappointing -- and yet oddly apropos -- that his Cooler co-star, Alec Baldwin, received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor while Macy himself got snubbed.
4. Jeff Bridges as The Dude - The Big Lebowski
His look is iconic: the beard, the bathrobe, a White Russian in hand and a glazed look in his eyes. So memorable was Bridges' performance as the slacker protagonist Jeffrey Lebowski, aka "The Dude," in the Coen brothers' cult classic that there are now entire conventions dedicated to him. Each year, thousands of Dude acolytes from around the world gather for Lebowski Fest, an annual celebration of all things Lebowski held in various cities across the country.
3. Paul Giamatti as Harvey Pekar - American Splendor
By all rights, comic book writer Pekar should be anything but loveable -- he's bitter and abrasive, a serial complainer and an unrepentant slob. That we embrace him anyway is a tribute to Giamatti's remarkable (and until recently, unsung) skills as an actor. The dialogue sequence in which Giamatti rants about the fundamental delusion of Revenge of the Nerds is particularly fantastic.
2. Steve Martin as Navin R. Johnson - The Jerk
15 years before Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels played a pair of well-meaning dimwits in the Farelly Brothers' hit Dumb and Dumber, Steve Martin blazed the trail in The Jerk, the rags-to-riches-to-rags story of a good-hearted moron who stumbles onto a vast fortune, only to lose it all. For those of you still smarting from Martin's ill-conceived Pink Panther remake, a viewing of The Jerk will help ease the pain nicely.
1. Bill Murray as John Winger - Stripes
The John Wayne of Loveable Losers, Murray is still arguably in his loser prime, having recently earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination for his performance as a melancholic former movie star in Lost in Translation. As the unemployed, out of shape, recently dumped John Winger in Stripes, Murray created an archetype all his own, which he would continue to exploit brilliantly throughout his career in films like Groundhog Day, What About Bob? and Rushmore.
Did I miss anyone? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know what a loser I am. I can take it.
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*Yeah, I know Gore technically won the election. He's still a loser.