The 1990s and early 2000s were a terrific time for one specific type of film: comedies in which a single actor plays a dozen different roles. In 1996 came The Nutty Professor, in which Eddie Murphy played not just the professor, but also his mother, brother, father and grandmother, plus two others for good measure.
Less than a year later, Mike Myers was both the titular spy and top baddie Dr. Evil in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. Both films spawned sequels, and by Goldmember (2002), Myers was playing four main characters.
Neither of these actors invented the one-man comedy blockbuster, of course. Myers always credits Peter Sellers and his work on films like Dr. Strangelove (1964), as a seminal influence. Fifteen years before Sellers, Alec Guinness played eight characters in 1949’s Kind Hearts and Coronets.
This format has fallen out of favour since the 2000s, thanks to Tyler Perry’s over-extended Madea franchise and (shudder) Jack and Jill (2011). Now, I don’t want Jack And Jill 2 any more than you do, but the sub-genre deserves another chance. If nothing else, these films were propelled forward by the ambition and manic energy of their leads. At their height, The Nutty Professor and Austin Powers were pop-culture juggernauts, endlessly quoted, referenced and celebrated. Both Strangelove and Kind Hearts are timeless classics – because, not in spite of, their charismatic stars.
In encouraging comeback news, Myers’ new series The Pentaverate (on Netflix now) sees him return to the multi-role-verse. How about a film in which, say, Melissa McCarthy portrays five members of the same wacky family? Or one in which Kumail Nanjiani plays four wrestlers all vying for the same world title? Such conceits would have the potential to shake up the format – and bring down the house.
It feels like at the moment there are too many unchallenging, made-by-committee movies dominating Hollywood. Just think about the impact a multi-character film made by a comic genius could have. The singular vision of a one-person comedy would be a welcome spice in the anodyne soup that is modern cinema… or is it just me?