Inspired in part by the Roman festival of Hilaria and the medieval Feast Of Fools, the first of the fourth month brings April Fool’s Day, a celebration of jokes, pranks and hoaxes around the world. It probably hasn’t escaped your attention, thanks to the prevalence of weak LOLs, thin hoaxes, and people complaining about the weak LOLs and thin hoaxes on social media.
We’ve never gone much in for April Fool’s Day jokes here at The Playlist, but we thought the day deserved marking in some way, so why not celebrate the fool? We’ve picked out ten of our favorite movie idiots below, because from the earliest Greek theater to this week’s release of Brit comedy “Alan Partridge: The Movie,” stupidity is always a guaranteed way to get a laugh. Take a look at our picks below, and tell us what idiots we are in the comments section.
Christopher Guest as Nigel Tufnel in “This Is Spinal Tap” (1983)
The heavy metal world is not known for its towering intellects, but even among that competition (even among his own band), Nigel Tufnel might take the prize for the dimmest rock star in cinematic history. In Rob Reiner’s seminal (“if you will”) rockumentary, none of faded metal legends Spinal Tap are especially bright, but as played so brilliantly by co-writer Christopher Guest, it’s Tufnel that struggles the most hilariously with even the most basic logic. From responding to charges of sexism with “what’s wrong with being sexy?” to an inability to deal with small pieces of bread on the backstage rider, to mixing up feet and inches and ending up ordering tiny on-stage props of Stonehenge, Tufnel’s responsible for many of the biggest laughs in the film. Best of all is the legendary moment where he unveils his specially made amp, where the dials go to eleven. Guest’s face as Reiner’s Marty Di Bergi asks “why don’t you just make ten louder, and ten be the top number and make that a little louder?” is a prime example of big-screen idiocy: the sheer effort of grappling with the concept seems to almost break him, before he finally responds, as if to a child, “these go to eleven.” But he’s a man of hidden talents too, as his beautiful classical composition, named “Lick My Love Pump,” reveals.
Steve Martin as Navin R. Johnson in “The Jerk” (1979)
“It was never easy for me. I was born a poor black child,” go the memorable opening lines from “The Jerk” (cribbed from star Steve Martin’s stand-up), and that, along with his anguished cry of “you mean I’m gonna stay this color?” when it’s revealed he’s adopted, are a pretty good shorthand for the sweetly innocent, completely dunderheaded way that Navin R. Johnson goes out into the world. Thirty-five years on, no one’s found a better vehicle for Martin’s loose-limbed, deeply silly talents than Carl Reiner’s comedy (co-written, curiously, by “Jaws” writer Carl Gottlieb), in which the comedian plays the hapless, sheltered figure who finally goes out to explore the world, becomes the target of a maniac, picks up a dog called Shithead, discovers what his “special purpose” is, becomes enormously wealthy, and loses it all again. As you might imagine from someone who has to literally have the difference between shit and Shinola explained to him, Navin is one of the dimmer figures here, but Martin approaches the role with a sweetness that never lets the film become mean-spirited, with Reiner carefully modulating the tone throughout. Martin would go back to this sort of well again (his Prince Ruprecht in “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” is howlingly funny), but never better than he does here.
Kevin Kline as Otto in “A Fish Called Wanda” (1988)
History has shown that one of the funniest things possible is a very stupid person who thinks that they’re very smart. That’s the basic contradiction at the heart of Otto in “A Fish Called Wanda,” a titanic comic performance by Kevin Kline that saw him, unusually for someone in a broad comedy, pick up a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. John Cleese and Charles Crichton’s Ealing-throwback heist-com is very funny, pretty much throughout, but Otto (which Cleese wrote specifically with Kline in mind) is basically the film’s secret weapon: a borderline psychotic, Limey-hating dimwit with a severe inferiority complex, which manifests in his continual threats to those around not to call him stupid. But as his lover Wanda (Jamie Lee Curtis) tells him, “I’ve known sheep that could outwit you. I’ve worn dresses with higher IQs.” Otto is a man who thinks “the Gettysburg Address was where Lincoln lived,” that the central message of Buddhism is “Every man for himself,” and that the London Underground is a political movement. He’s the ultimate Ugly American abroad (“You are the vulgarian, you fuck,” he tells Cleese’s Archie when he calls him on his swearing), a terrible driver with the most hilarious off-putting cum face in cinematic history, and a total tour de force from Kline that still remains the actor’s finest hour.
Charlie Chaplin as Adenoid Hynckel in “The Great Dictator” (1940)
One would hesitate to call Charlie Chaplin’s classic Tramp character an idiot—he’s not always the sharpest tool in the drawer, but can be wily, and like many of the great silent comics, comes closer to classic clowning than to anything more prevalent more recently. But that can’t be said for one of the two characters he plays in the atypical, remarkable “The Great Dictator” (which earned Chaplin his only Oscar nomination for acting). For half of the film, Chaplin plays an unnamed Jewish barber with a certain resemblance to the Tramp, but for the other, he plays Adenoid Hynckel, a savage parody of Adolf Hitler. And Hynckel is, as you would hope, a total cretin. He was way ahead of the game: when the British and the Americans were still hoping to appease the monster, Chaplin set out to ridicule him (though war was underway by the time it was completed) with his first talkie, and it’s enormously effective. The star reportedly studied Leni Riefenstahl’s “The Triumph Of The Will” at length to capture Hitler’s manner and mannerisms, and when he rants and raves in impotent rage in a sort of pidgin German, the sad absurdity of the target becomes clear (it’s an early precursor to those “Downfall” dubs). Someone once told the great British comic Peter Cook that the greatest satirical performers in history were Weimar Berlin’s cabaret artists, to which Cook replied, “Yeah, they really showed Hitler, didn’t they.” But with “The Great Dictator” proving a huge global hit, reducing the Nazi leader to a figure of worldwide mockery, Chaplin demonstrated the real power of making your enemy look like an idiot.
Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau in “The Pink Panther “(1963) (and 6 others)
As if to prove that studio executives have no clue what they’re doing, this week saw MGM announce that they were planning a reboot of “The Pink Panther” series as a live-action CGI hybrid focusing on the cartoon character from the films’ credit sequences. Which, when it means ignoring one of the finest, and dumbest, comic creations in cinematic history, seems positively perverse. Inept, less-than-bright Gallic cop Clouseau played by Peter Sellers, first cropped up in a small supporting role in 1963’s “The Pink Panther,” which mostly focused on David Niven’s jewel thief, as played by Peter Sellers. He proved immediately popular, and got his own showcase the following year with “A Shot In The Dark,” and while Alan Arkin became the George Lazenby of the franchise for ’68’s “Inspector Clouseau,” Sellers returned for three more appearances between 1975 and 1982 (unused outtakes allowing him to appear in “Trail Of The Pink Panther” after his death). Sellers might have been the most gifted physical comic of the sound era, and rarely got a better showcase for his talents as Clouseau: his clumsy slapstick setpieces would turn Harold Lloyd green with envy. But Sellers also excelled at Clouseau’s general idiocy: again, the character believes that he’s the smartest person in the room, which makes him dim-witted deductions all the more enjoyable. That even talents as funny as Arkin, Roberto Benigni and Steve Martin were unable to capture the magic shows what alchemy it was having Sellers in the role.
George Clooney as Ulysses Everett McGill in “O Brother Where Art Thou” (2000)
Joel and Ethan Coen love their dummies: from Nicolas Cage in “Raising Arizona” and Tim Robbins in “The Hudsucker Proxy” to Steve Buscemi in “The Big Lebowski” and Brad Pitt in “Burn After Reading,” few filmmakers have placed idiots more centrally in their oeuvre. But perhaps our favorite moron in the Coen canon is George Clooney in surprise hit “O Brother Where Art Thou.” None of three chain gang runaways that the film centers on (also played by John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson) are exactly bright, but Clooney’s Ulysses Everett McGill (a surrogate of sorts to the hero of Homer’s Odyssey, as the name might suggests) is the dumbest of the bunch, perhaps because he’s the one who continually believes he’s the smartest man around. Using his matinee idol looks to summon the spirit of Clark Gable and Cary Grant at their silliest, Clooney displays comic flair that he’s rarely had the chance to really work with before or since, proving deeply self-centered, entirely in love with the sound of his own voice, and rarely with a plan that isn’t completely half-baked. The film is the first of what Clooney would later term his “trilogy of idiots” with the Coens, with “Intolerable Cruelty” and “Burn After Reading” following (there was a fourth mooted at one point too, “Hail Caesar”), but this is the purest and funniest idiocy of the bunch.
Steve Carell as Brick Tamland in “Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy” (2004)
The idiot that launched a megastar. Before “Anchorman,” Steve Carell was a well-liked but undervalued improv actor best known for a small scene-stealing role in “Bruce Almighty,” and as a correspondent on “The Daily Show.” But then we met Brick, in Adam McKay’s cult comedy classic, and Carell’s career was never the same again. Brick (who people like because “he’s polite, and rarely late”) might be the stupidest character on this list: most are dumb, but only Brick is someone that you wonder how he functions in society without wandering into traffic or forgetting to feed himself. Fortunately, the world that McKay and writer/star Will Ferrell is only loosely connected to reality, so you can mostly just sit back and enjoy Carell coming up with one of the most inspired comic creations of modern times. Brick is just … wrong, with almost everything he says proving to be a non-sequitur or just plain baffling. In a film with one of the higher successful gag-ratios in recent memory, Brick’s responsible for some of the biggest gut-laughs, from “I love lamp” to bursting into tears at the sight of a panda birth. As with the film itself, there were diminished returns from Brick in last year’s sequel, but the biggest joke was still yet to come: as the closing credits of the first film revealed, he’d go on to work in the Bush administration…
Ben Stiller as Derek Zoolander in “Zoolander” (2001)
If VH1 has given the world anything positive, be glad it was Ben Stiller‘s male model Derek Zoolander: the character, who eventually got his own movie in a film directed and co-written by Stiller, got his start in short films made for the VH1 Fashion Awards in 1996 and 1997, and without them, we’d never have gotten the cheekbonesiest nincompoop in the movies. The intelligence, or otherwise, of male models might seem like low-hanging fruit, and it was, but Stiller’s film made up for it by being consistently and gutbustingly funny. From his near-constant pout to the somewhat indescribable voice, it’s the most iconic and off-the-leash comic creation the star’s ever come up with, and together with co-star Hansel (who Owen Wilson’s arguably a little too low-energy to really nail, though he’s still pretty funny), he gets up to some remarkably dim-witted things. The “centre for ants!” and looking for files “inside the computer” are the stuff of comedy legend already barely a decade on, but nothing quite beats the gasoline fight that happens early on (even if Derek is only tangentially involved). The film’s cult status has only grown over the years: here’s hoping that the much-mooted sequel, reportedly called “Twolander,” eventually makes it to the screen. And that it’s better than “Anchorman 2.”
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels as Harry and Lloyd in “Dumb & Dumber” (1994)
With a title like “Dumb & Dumber,” it would be fair to say that the Farrelly Brothers would have failed at what they set out to do if their leads Harry Dunne (Jeff Daniels) and Lloyd Christmas (Jim Carrey) didn’t make this list. Fortunately, the film is, if not quite their best (“There’s Something About Mary,” probably), consistently hilarious, and of course, very, very dumb. Unless you watched it very recently, you probably don’t remember the plot, and there’s a reason for that: it’s pretty threadbare, nothing but a vehicle for Harry and Lloyd to go from antics to shenanigans and back again. So it’s fortunate that their leads are so great: Carrey, a few months on from “Ace Ventura” and “The Mask,” was on the precipice of becoming a megastar, and demonstrates exactly why here (his “most annoying sound in the world” lives exactly up to its promise). But it’s Daniels, then mostly better known as a dramatic actor, who’s the secret weapon. Carrey at his silliest still projects a certain kind of intelligence, but Daniels feels genuinely dead behind the eyes, and gets some of the best gags (his reaction to a snowball fight with Lauren Holly’s Mary is one for the ages). Sequel “Dumb & Dumber To” arrives later in the year, twenty years on: it’ll be a tough act to reclaim the magic, but if they can get Carrey and Daniels back in those vile orange and blue suits, it’ll be worth it for that alone.
Everyone in “Idiocracy” (2006)
Where else could we end a list like this than with the “War and Peace” of stupidity: Mike Judge’s cult satire “Idiocracy.” Something of a love letter to, and evisceration of, the unintelligent, the “Office Space” follow-up sees average joe Luke Wilson and prostitute Maya Rudolph accidentally frozen for 500 years, during which time the average IQ has plummeted to the extent to which the number one TV show is called “Ow! My Balls!,” and a film called “Ass” won a Screenplay Oscar, while the President (an amazing Terry Crews) is called Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho. The film could probably benefit from a straight man a little less straight than Wilson, and is very one-joke, which rather blunts the satire in places. But as a festival of morons, it’s pretty much unbeatable, and the cast of the future world (which includes cameos from ringers like Thomas Haden Church and Stephen Root, among others) are clearly having an absolute blast. Perhaps more than anything else, the film (which Fox essentially buried, presumably afraid of offending the dummies that they were simultaneously trying to market things like “Deck The Halls,” “My Super Ex-Girlfriend” and “Eragon” to) seems to become more and more viable every day. How long will it really be before we get eight seasons of “Ow! My Balls!”?
Honorable Mentions: We wanted to make sure that our picks were front-and-center in their movies, and truly fit the definition of the word “idiot,” and in a way that hopefully didn’t prove too offensive to the professionally offended. As such, we excluded characters who fit more into the “holy fool” type—those like Tom Hanks in “Forrest Gump,” Bruno Schleinstein in “The Enigma Of Kasper Hauser” or Peter Sellers in “Being There.” We couldn’t quite find space for the likes of Zach Galifianakis in “The Hangover,” Bill Murray in “Caddyshack,” Mira Sorvino and Lisa Kudrow in “Romy & Michelle’s High School Reunion,” Rowan Atkinson in “Bean,” Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly in “Step Brothers,” and Woody Allen in “Take The Money & Run” either.
And for those who are more tangential, or who didn’t quite tick the right boxes, there’s also Thomas Wilson in “Back To The Future,” Roberto Benigni in “Johnny Stecchino,” Stephen Root in “Office Space,” the Marx Brothers in pretty much anything, Leslie Nielsen in “The Naked Gun,” Joe E. Brown in “Some Like It Hot” or Graham Chapman in “Monty Python And The Holy Grail.”