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