Lisa Schwarzbaum
March 31, 2010 AT 06:00 PM EDT

Image Credit: Wilson WebbSometimes the sweetest thing a famous actor can do for his career is play a sourpuss. That’s my theory, anyway, presented in conjunction with the release of Noah Baumbach’s bracingly dyspeptic psychological tragicomedy Greenberg. In this case, Ben Stiller does the honors with the title role, playing a man in midlife who is incapable — despite his best efforts at sustaining a low-stress mellowness — of not leaving his personal stink mark of dissatisfaction on everyone in his wake. But I don’t want to make the movie sound like (too much of) a downer, because it’s not — not with Stiller embracing Roger Greenberg’s prickly nature so earnestly. True, Stiller has tailored a successful career for himself playing guys so full of themselves that they’re hilarious in great, self-absorbed-peacock stuff like Zoolander and Tropic Thunder (one of my big-time favorites). But Greenberg strips Stiller of the familiar, air-quote irony with which he usually builds his outrageous characters. And in his energetic seriousness, the actor shows new dramatic depth.

Same thing goes for Adam Sandler, a popular, characteristically lovable funny guy whose big performance breakthrough into unsweetened territory in Paul Thomas Anderson’s jolt-to-the-system “romantic comedy” Punch-Drunk Love led to the fascinating, risky, complex projects he has taken on since, including Anger Management and Funny People. Then there’s Tom Cruise, who winked smartly at his own fame with excellent SOB roles in Magnolia and Tropic Thunder. And George Clooney who, in Up In the Air, found just the right way to mess with his own suave movie-star persona by playing a character with serious (rather than cartoony) deficiencies of soul.

Meanwhile, here’s a complementary theory to go along with my theme:  While “nice” male actors improve their standing by playing men who are the bitter opposite of nice, “nice” female actors enhance their cred by playing women who aren’t as pretty as the actresses playing them. Or who are at least dumpier. At one far extreme, there’s Charlize Theron in Monster; closer to home there’s, yes, Jennifer Aniston in The Good Girl.

Hit me with your own best example  to bolster — or disprove — my brilliant thesis.

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