I firmly believe that Steve Zahn is one of the most criminally ignored comedians currently working in film and television. But perhaps comedian isn’t fair. It isn’t like the guy tours between film roles doing stand-up around the country. In fact, I’m not entirely sure he would refer to himself as one. But either way, dude is funny as hell, and his humor deserves to be discussed about more.
Now for the flip. Occasionally in his roles, Zahn is given all too brief moments to fully assert his drama, which always produces memorable results. He’s believable in his comedy, and authentic in his pain.
That Thing You Do! (1996)
“Take us there, Skitch.”
Although Zahn had popped up briefly but notably in a handful of roles before That Thing You Do!, Lenny Haise proved to be his big breakout. As the guitarist and back up singer for The Wonders, Zahn provides Tom Hanks’ film with the perfect amount of ‘60s farce. Damn near everything that comes out of Lenny’s mouth is delivered to achieve a laugh. Whether he’s arguing the case for the luxury of a tiny mobile camper, or playing Go Fish with some winos, this is the performance that deserved to put Zahn on the map.
Out of Sight (1998)
Much like That Thing You Do! (and, well, the majority of his other roles) Zahn’s work in Out of Sight is designed to heighten the comic relief. Playing a consummate fuckup like Glenn Michaels works seamlessly for Zahn – the shaggy hair, the ridiculous sun glasses, the stoner cadence – the dude can simply play a moron like no one else.
But, perhaps what’s most notable in this performance is that great flip I mentioned earlier. Zahn’s tearful, terrified reaction to watching Don Cheadle’s Maurice senselessly butcher a family makes way for the film’s most heartfelt moment. We don’t witness the crime, but it’s written all over Zahn’s face. That’s acting.
Happy, Texas (1999)
Wayne Wayne Wayne Jr.
In his best out-and-out comedic performance to date, Zahn, along with Jeremy Northam, play escaped convicts who are hilariously mistook for gay partners consulting beauty pageant contestants in Texas. The set-up is a little tired (expect the whole false-gay-man-befriends-attractive-woman-only-because-she-thinks-he’s-gay bit) but Zahn seriously makes this case of mistaken identity soar with absurdity.
Two things make this performance sing: first is the way Wayne influences a new female love interest, at one point telling her “That whole gay thing is just like a hobby,” and second, the fact that Wayne slowly grows to develop a taste for beauty pageant consulting is handled in a way very few actors could pull off. Happy, Texas is Zahn at his Zahniest.
Joy Ride (2001)
There’s a scene midway through the endlessly enjoyable thriller romp, Joy Ride, in which Steve Zahn threatens to kill a would-be criminal with his finger.
By this point in the film, Fuller and his brother Lewis (Paul Walker) are aware that they’re being stalked by a man called Rusty Nail. Knowing Rusty to be close, the brothers quickly stop for gas, with Fuller pumping as Lewis goes inside to make a call. Suddenly, a creepy dude in an ICE truck pulls up, immediately causing Fuller to assume it’s Rusty Nail. The brothers leave the station and the ICE man peruses them diligently. One thing leads to another, and before long, the ICE man has the brothers pinned down with nowhere to go. The ICE man approaches the car, and Zahn yells at the top of his lungs for the man to “Stay the fuck back! We gotta gun!” while holding his thumb and index finger in a gun shape.
The man taps on the window and hands Lewis’ credit card (which he mistakenly left at the station) back to him. The scene is scary tense, and crazy funny. Perfectly Zahn.
I’m one of about four people I know who actually watches David Simon’s masterful HBO drama Treme, which is a shame on many levels. A main one being Steve Zahn’s hilariously helpless Davis McAlary.
Davis is a part time DJ trying to crack into the music game by making good on a continued hustle. Heavily influenced and motivated by the New Orleans culture that raised him, Davis is always looking to cook up controversy by sticking it to the man.
As is often the case for Simon’s best characters, there is so much more going on to Davis than meets the eye. It isn’t until midway through the first season, for instance, that we learn Davis’ bohemian lifestyle is strictly by choice, not necessity, as he comes from an insanely wealthy family (whose financial help he refuses). Davis is the kind of guy who drinks too much beer, smokes too much weed, flexes too many ideas, and can out-articulate anyone in any situation. He’s a moron, but he’s also kind of a genius. It’s as “Steve Zahn” a Steve Zahn performance as there is.
Best of the Best
Rescue Dawn (2007)
I’m not entirely sure what drove Zahn to fight so hard for this role, or why director Werner Herzog opted to give him a shot, but goddamn, what he does here is so far removed from anything he’s done before, it’s simply a revelation.
As a terrified, space-out prisoner of war in a hellacious Vietnamese camp, Duane is Zahn at his most consistently dramatic. Never once does the actor dare venture into comedic territory, opting instead to completely immerse himself into a scared shitless shell of a man.
There’s a scene in this film in which Christian Bale’s Dieter is finally able to execute the escape he’s been planning so diligently. Right as things start to get heavy, Duane keels over and vomits on the ground. It’s a moment of instinctual hardship that instantly draws pity. And later, as Dieter and Duane try to survive the harsh Vietnam jungle, we watch as Duane slips further and further into madness. The finest scene of Zahn’s career has him sitting starved and wide-eyed, whispering for Dieter to keep his voice down. “Shhhh, Duane, I’m not speaking,” Dieter gently says. I get chills just thinking about that moment.
Other Notable Roles
|In Shattered Glass|
Reality Bites (1994)
You’ve Got Mail (1998)
Riding in Cars with Boys (2001)
Saving Silverman (2001)
Shattered Glass (2003)
Sunshine Cleaning (2008)
A Perfect Getaway (2009)
Michael Clarke Duncan
Philip Baker Hall
Philip Seymour Hoffman
the Cast of Lincoln
William H. Macy
John C. Reilly