Harrison Ford: Comedy Star? How His Old Comedies Led to ‘Shrinking’
What makes the iconic movie star’s latest grumpy loner so endearing? Time, talent, and TV — but let’s break that down a bit, shall we?
Harrison Ford’s historic acting résumé offers plenty of unforgettable endings, but only one film pivots on the word “fluffy.”
In “Morning Glory,” a 2010 workplace comedy about a young producer (Rachel McAdams) who attempts to revitalize a ratings-starved morning show by hiring a legendary nightly news anchor (Ford), Becky is thinking about leaving the breakfast TV program she helped save. Viewership is climbing, the network is happy, and she’s fielding bigger and better offers from the likes of NBC. (“Daybreak” is part of a fictional network with the call sign, if you can believe it, IBS.) Her greatest challenge has been managing the ego of her star acquisition: Ford’s eight-time Peabody winner, Mike Pomeroy. The crabby hard-news reporter rebukes her suggestions (“You want me to do stories about Baked Alaska? After the career I’ve had?”), refuses to play nice with his co-anchor (a frog-kissing Diane Keaton), and generally makes her job (and everyone else’s) next to impossible.
But then he finds out she might leave, and his black heart finally starts beating. Abandoning the desk mid-broadcast, Mike shouts at an executive producer, “I need eggs!” Suddenly, he’s ordering staffers to assemble the show’s kitchen and donning a Daybreak apron. When Becky glances at a TV screen — in the middle of her big job interview — she’s stopped cold at the sight of the former war correspondent cooking up a frittata. “Occasionally I make them at home, but only for people I really care about,” Mike says, referencing an earlier argument with Becky and letting her know she is, in fact, a person he cares for.
His callbacks don’t end there. In her many fights with Mike, what really sent Becky over the edge — the leaden straw that broke the TV producer’s back, if you will — was when he balked at saying, of all words, “fluffy.” Becky lost her shit, Mike dug in his heels, and here we are: She’s looking for a new job, he’s desperate to keep her on his team. So as Mike remembers the “beautiful Italian movie star” who taught him how to make this delicious fried omelette, he also makes sure to add that “the key to a great frittata is a very hot pan, because that, my friends, is what makes it” — Mike pauses, points to the camera, and lands the kicker — “fluffy.” Becky sprints back to Daybreak, reunites with Mike, and the duo literally end the movie by walking into the sunrise.
…OK, so maybe “Morning Glory’s” ending isn’t as unforgettable as cinema’s best comedies (it’s no “22 Jump Street”!), but what makes Mike and Becky’s heartwarming send-off so memorable can be boiled down to a simple factor: Harrison Ford. As when he embodies Han Solo or Indiana Jones, Ford saves the day. He steps up at the eleventh hour, wins over a reluctant female partner (albeit in a strictly platonic fashion), and becomes the hero audiences know and love. Thus is the template for so many of Ford’s roles in so many of his movies, and it carries over whether he’s whipping eggs or whipping snakes. But if you take a longer look — a longer look than a so-so movie like “Morning Glory” tends to invite — you can see a side of Mr. Ford that’s only getting better with age. Mike Pomeroy may not be an action hero, but it’s Ford’s comedic prowess that carries the film.
To note that Ford, one of history’s most iconic movie stars, can be funny is like saying Tom Cruise can be fast. From his early breakthroughs playing a sassy, solitary space cowboy in “Star Wars” and a sassy, solitary archeological cowboy in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” the actor’s pointed quips and boyish shrugs have delivered huge laughs in Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters. It’s just that being funny isn’t what Ford is known for.
That may be a good thing, considering his track record for choosing comedies is pretty awful. Over the decades, Ford has only made a handful of actual comedies (movies that aim for the laugh first), and only a few of those are actually good movies. But he’s been perfecting his comic instincts throughout his career, wielding humor with increasing precision even as his projects fail to live up to his talents. Ford’s clunky, often-unsuccessful comedies created a void, of sorts, where one of his most endearing skills went underutilized. Audiences knew he could be funny in spurts — in between throwing punches or wooing a love interest — but he wasn’t expected to carry a comedy.
Now, he’s delivered another great performance in a less-than-great project… and it feels like a revelation. Why? Time, talent, and TV. The Apple TV+ series “Shrinking” draws from the audience’s lengthy history with Harrison Ford, relies heavily on his deft comic talents, and allows us to appreciate both thanks to the extended time offered by TV. What seems familiar at first becomes extraordinary over the 10-episode first season.
And it all starts with a good teacher.
When Ford Was a Funny Work-in-Progress
Dialing the wayback machine to 1979, it’s two years after “Star Wars” and two years before “Raiders.” Ford has saddled up alongside Gene Wilder for a comedy-western playing a character not far removed from Han Solo. Instead of an interstellar smuggler, he’s a bank robber, and instead of pairing up with a hairy, screaming Wookie, he partners up with a hairy, shouting rabbi. Sporting a bushy beard and long curls, Wilder plays Avram, a recent graduate of a Polish seminary who’s sent to San Francisco to start a new synagogue. But when thieves steal his travel money, Avram finds an unlikely guide (and protector) in Ford’s Tommy Lillard. Together, they make their way across a perilous American landscape, learning each other’s customs and forming an unlikely friendship.
“The Frisco Kid” was rightly panned upon release. Tonally all over the map and way too long as a result — some of the slapstick scenes don’t even follow their own logic, and seem forced into the picture to hit a studio quota — “The Frisco Kid” consistently reads as more of a drama with silly bits than a comedy with emotional heft. It’s also more of Wilder’s movie than Ford’s, the latter of whom doesn’t show up for nearly 30 minutes and often becomes an extraneous bystander, waiting and watching in the background while Wilder’s rabbi teaches Judaism to cowboys, settlers, and Indigenous Americans.
Ford’s comedic touch is similarly unpolished, but you can see the elements of the actor’s future stardom throughout. Introduced sleeping on a train car with a brimmed hat laid casually over his face — a napping style soon to be made cool by Indiana Jones — he wakes up, robs the passengers by lying to them (claiming his nonexistent partner is standing behind them with a shotgun), ends on a quip (“Better to give than to receive, ain’t it folks?”), and hops off the speeding train with his stolen bounty. Later, his angry/scared shouting can be a little too raw — he’s dialed into his character’s reality instead of the situation’s comic intentions — but even when his tough talk gets a bit jittery, his outbursts remain oddly endearing. During Tommy’s last-minute heroics, Ford redeploys his iconic “Star Wars” shooting stance and his surprise entrance (clad in a white undershirt unbuttoned to the navel) leaves no doubt of his natural charisma.
Best of all, Ford’s performance feels fresh. Having Wilder as a scene partner had to play a hand in his comedic development. Their camaraderie is the film’s strongest aspect, and it boosts Ford’s affability by association. I’m not sure what Southern accent he slips in and out of, but he’s trying, and that’s fun. The litany of Jewish terms he mangles are mostly tossed aside, which lets Tommy’s misplaced confidence add an extra layer to each messed up attempt at friendly assimilation, and his inspirational final speech shows glimpses of the furious vulnerability Ford has now harnessed for decades.
When His Charisma and Comedy Start Really ‘Working’
By the time his next “comedy” rolls around, Ford is dialed in, and “Working Girl” reaps the benefits. Nine more years of acting experience, including four entries in his two blockbuster franchises, help Ford hone his skills for Mike Nichols’ 1989 Oscar-winner, in which he plays the irresistible dreamboat, Jack Trainer. His growth is quickly evident, not only in how he charms and disarms Tess (Melanie Griffith) on their first “date,” but in his attempts to hold up a one-sided conversation after she passes out midway through. (Ah, the ’80s: When a woman mixing muscle relaxers with a stranger’s tequila shots were treated as good, clean fun.)
The emotive jitters Ford exhibited a decade earlier have been smoothed into a relatable nervous tension. “Herb tea?” he asks his clearly unconscious date, and before she can’t answer, he dejectedly admits, “I don’t have any.” Such sheepish, innocent, and futile attempts to impress Tess aren’t simply for laughs; they support Ford’s romantic close-up: “Man, you sure are pretty,” Jack says, and it’s the jump from absurdity to sincerity that ingratiates the character to the audience.
Courtesy Image / PMC
Despite the film’s success — and Ford’s flattering turn in it — comedies become few and far between for the actor. Over the next decade-plus, the star embraces more action movies (“Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” “Patriot Games,” “The Fugitive,” “Air Force One”) and weighty dramas (“Presumed Innocent,” “The Devil’s Own”). But in between growls to get off his plane, Ford is fine-tuning what’s become his best-known archetype; a guy who surfaced onscreen as Han Solo and Indiana Jones and off-screen in intermittent interviews and Hollywood lore: the grump.
Typically, the Grump™ is found in unwanted, uncomfortable circumstances that could range from life-threatening (like being framed for murder or seeing his airplane taken over by terrorists) to mundane (like speaking to dumb-dumbs, or being forced to read the word “fluffy” on TV). At first, the Grump™ resists. He fights for his freedom, fights the bad guys, fights the rules of polite society, or fights with the usually younger know-it-alls telling him what to do. Then there’s a fork in the road: When the Grump™ is right to be grumpy, he advances his position until he saves the day. But when the Grump™’s grumpiness impedes his progress, he slowly cedes ground until a tolerable compromise can be found. He opens up just a little, but the gesture speaks volumes, and the reformed Grump™ — in one way or another — still saves the day.
The older Ford gets, the easier it is for audiences to embrace his reluctant heroes as crotchety father figures. You’ve got your laugh-forward action flicks, like “Hollywood Homicide,” where he’s the reluctant mentor to a young whipper-snapper (Josh Hartnett). In “Six Days, Seven Nights,” he’s almost 30 years older than his love interest, Robin (Anne Heche), but Ford’s “man’s man” persona — an airplane pilot forced into survival mode after a crash — helps to land banter about their age gap while still selling himself as an attractive partner (especially when compared to Robin’s wimpy fiancé, played by an extra whiny David Schwimmer). A similar if nicer version plays out in the 1995 remake of “Sabrina” — a romance misleadingly labeled a rom-com, despite a dearth of actual jokes — where he’s more than two decades older than Julia Ormond’s titular lead, yet wins her over with an odd combination of competency, vulnerability, and extreme wealth.
Through a fourth “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones,” Ford cruises along as the world’s gruffest, toughest, handsomest papa bear. (There’s a case to be made that the actor’s contributions to our culture helped elevate the once-infantilized “daddy” into today’s capital-D “Daddy,” but that’s a whole other essay.) Still, playing the Grump™ time after time also provided opportunities to sharpen other tools — comedic tools (you know, like a hacksaw). He would occasionally subvert his surly public image for a few chuckles, either in fleeting moments with an aging Han or Indy, or during funny, part-time dalliances in silly pictures like “Anchorman 2” and “The Expendables 3.” Heck, whole comedies were based around thawing Ford’s icy exterior — like “Morning Glory,” where a random fan recognizes Ford’s legendary broadcaster on the street and sums up how many fans may remember the actor’s Grump™ phase: “Everyone was eating stuffed zucchini, and you were all cranky about it!”
Expanding His Range in ‘Shrinking’
Enter: “Shrinking.” In a lot of ways, Paul Rhoades fits snugly within the actor’s Grump™ zone. Paul is a successful therapist with his own practice in Pasadena, CA. He reluctantly mentors his two other staffers, Jimmy (Jason Segel) and Gabby (Jessica Williams), and — since he’s grown distant with his own daughter — Paul even makes time (in secret) for Jimmy’s kid, Alice (Lukita Maxwell). Even though he’s an award-winning advisor to others, Paul can only help himself so much, and he struggles to mend fences with his only child. (He hasn’t even told her about his Parkinson’s diagnosis.)
Co-created by “Ted Lasso’s” Bill Lawrence and Brett Goldstein, “Shrinking” is packed to the gills with bubbly, over-the-top personalities, which are both intolerable in their artificiality and make excellent foils for Ford. When Gabby scolds Paul about his water consumption while drinking from the world’s largest sippy cup — “Do you know what percentage of yourself is actually made of water?” — Paul’s response is a dismissive, ” I know what percentage of myself doesn’t give a shit,” which makes it easy to side with the dehydrated Grump™. When Jimmy does what Paul specifically tells him not to do — telling patients how to fix their lives instead of letting them make better choices for themselves — it’s easy to side with Paul because, well, Jimmy is an idiot and Harrison Ford is not.
“Shrinking” wears out Jimmy’s immature idiocy pretty fast, but Ford as the scary boss/disapproving father figure proves an indefatigable resource — and an adaptable one. As the season goes on, Paul evolves from the constant voice of reason into a person all his own. He’s not just earning laughs by shutting down the excessive enthusiasm or poor instincts of others; he’s creating laughs by making surprising choices all his own.
Courtesy of Beth Dubber / Apple TV+
Some come from familiar places, like when Ford’s towering movie star image is undercut by silly lines like “You’re the mama!” or when Paul misuses the term “raw-dogging.” Then there are meta gags that play off his iconic roles, like when Paul gets made fun of for wearing a brimmed hat or repeatedly calls himself a hero. Still more jokes seem to emerge from the amount of time Ford gets to fill on a TV show, like the awkward way he walks out of Jimmy’s office in the premiere or the extra reaction shot he leans into at the end of opportune scenes.
That last example included, plenty of what’s great about Paul seems to come from Ford’s comic instincts. It’s the way he points and pumps his fists while singing along to Sugar Ray, and the delight he takes from instilling fear in strangers. It’s the defeated manner in which he places weed gummies in his mouth, and the honking laugh he lets out, hours later, when they hit. It’s in his timing, which has been there since the beginning, and the purpose he gives to each funny beat, which wasn’t. In a sea of cartoon characters, he holds onto Paul’s reality while still hitting every absurd punchline, every stretch to reach said punchline, and every cutesy line reading.
“Shrinking” capitalizes on viewers’ decades-long relationship with Ford and makes the most of his comedic skills. Plus, simply by existing in the TV medium, it magnifies those aspects over five hours of story. It may not be a great show, but it’s an impeccable delivery device for one of Ford’s best performances.
At the end of “Morning Glory,” when Mike and Becky are walking into the sunrise, the young producer reads her star anchor a review of their new-and-improved show: “His gravity leavens the silliness of morning TV making for an incongruous but somehow perfect match,” she quotes. “Turns out that after 40 years in the business, the real Mike Pomeroy has finally arrived.”
“Shrinking” certainly isn’t that emblematic. No one is arguing Ford should have been starring in sitcoms for the past 30 years. But the fact that he hasn’t, combined with the evident attention he’s paid to developing those skills anyway, makes seeing them in action now, five decades into one of the most widely appreciated careers in film history, so thrilling. He’s a perfect match for the material, even if the material is still less than he deserves.
“Shrinking” is available on Apple TV+. “1923,” while not a comedy, is available on Paramount+. “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” premieres Friday, June 30, only in theaters.
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