Jennifer Coolidge owns a very specific brand of comedy. But how does one describe that brand? To call it “blonde” or “ditzy” would be a disservice to just how smart and funny Coolidge is. But those descriptors might be the first words that spring to mind after watching her in Christopher Guest’s Best in Show, For Your Consideration, and A Mighty Wind. And need we mention her saccharine-sweet performance as Paulette in the guilty favorite, Legally Blonde? So come along with us, as we try to get to the bottom of what makes Jennifer Coolidge so great.
Like Peter Stormare, Jennifer Coolidge got an early start in Hollywood on the sitcom, Seinfeld, in the episode “The Masseuse.” There are several interesting things to unpack when it comes to this episode — at the top of the list is that, in this episode, a massage stands in as an uneasy analogy for sex. Ultimately, the episode half-heartedly explores nature of consent. In a modern context, the main conceit (and most of the jokes) in this episode is shockingly problematic. But Coolidge’s performance stands out because of how muted it is. If this performance came in the middle of her career as opposed to the beginning, it would be described as “against type.” In this role, it’s Coolidge, of all people, who plays foil to Seinfeld’s zaniness.
The fact is that Coolidge, who was a Groundling and who studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, probably has more range than her typical roles show off. This typically quiet energy was on display again in American Pie, the teen comedy that served as her breakout. To be sure, this movie hasn’t aged particularly well, but for a certain segment of older millennials, it is inexorably linked to their adolescence. And Coolidge, who plays an attractive older woman (and, famously, one of the character’s mothers), plays the role with a sultry quietude. As a teenager, it was easy to see her character through the movie’s limited lens as a one-dimensional sex figure. Re-watching the movie (and there’s little reason to do so outside of Coolidge and Eugene Levy) you see shades of Anne Bancroft’s immortal turn as Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate. It’s a small role imbued with profound loneliness and overshadowed by the loud, gratuitous humor that comes with male coming of age stories. Still, American Pie introduced the world to Jennifer Coolidge, so it wasn’t all bad.
It was only after American Pie that, for better or for worse, Coolidge began getting typecast as the “one-dimensional ditz.” As Paulette in Legally Blonde, she does this for pathos. As Elle Woods’s (Reese Witherspoon) best friend and manicurist, she gives Woods an outlet for good deeds — Woods helps her end an abusive relationship and find another, better, romantic partner. Paulette is an innocent character who is easy to root for, and we do.
Coolidge builds on this kind of performance in the similar, but more complex roles she took on in Christopher Guest’s For Your Consideration, Best in Show, and A Mighty Wind. In these movies Coolidge offers different shades on a common archetype — in Best in Show, she plays Sherri Ann Cabot, the much younger wife to an ancient millionaire. What begins as an obvious send-up of Anna Nicole Smith, turns into something much more interesting as Guest layers on a love affair between Cabot and her dog trainer, Christy Cummings (played by the always amazing Jane Lynch). Coolidge brings unexpected care to a role that could have easily been more bombastic or one-dimensional.
In For Your Consideration, one of Guest’s darker takes on the mockumentary format, Coolidge plays the clueless movie producer. She provides the audience with a comic palette cleanser, after the deep sadness portrayed by Catherine O’Hara, Parker Posey, Harry Shearer, and Christopher Moynihan, who all play struggling actors on the precipice of what will be their big break or the end of their dreams. Here, Coolidge’s optimistic cluelessness is a bright breath of fresh air in between these funny, but dark sequences. Strangely, in a movie filled with solipsistic, self-obsessed people, Coolidge’s character comes off as one of its most honest.
Of course, Coolidge’s film roles only tell half the story — much of her career has played out on the small screen in shows that range from Seinfeld and Friends, to the inadvisable Joey, and the unwatchable 2 Broke Girls. But her roles in these shows amount to lesser versions of her film performances, for the most part.
Ultimately, Jennifer Coolidge has carved out a section of the film world with her own comedic archetype — less attentive viewers might reduce it to being one-dimensional, or ditzy, but it is in fact much more layered and unique. This archetype really is just “Coolidge,” because frankly, no one else could pull these rolls off quite as she does. It would be amazing if she were able to spread her wings and really go against type in a serious role — perhaps something akin to her, unfortunately, overshadowed performance in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. But, in the meantime, we can watch and love her jaw-droppingly funny (and strangely nuanced) performances in some of our favorite Christopher Guest movies.