By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist April 1, 2014 at 3:00PM
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.