With ‘The Burial,’ Jamie Foxx Continues His Comedic Hot Streak
In April, Jamie Foxx was hospitalized for what was described by his family as “a medical complication.” More details weren’t forthcoming, but in August the 55-year-old actor/comedian/musician took to Instagram to announce, “It’s been an unexpected dark journey… but I can see the light… I’m thankful to everyone that reached out and sent well wishes and prayers… I have a lot of people to thank… u just don’t know how much it meant.”
Because of the ongoing SAG-AFTRA strike, it’s not necessarily concerning that we haven’t seen Foxx out promoting his latest film, The Burial, which arrived on Prime Video on Friday. Opening to good reviews after its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, this comedy-drama tells the true story of a flashy attorney, Willie E. Gary, who took on the case of an aging funeral director, Jeremiah O’Keefe (Tommy Lee Jones), who sued a large funeral-home company who reneged on a contractual agreement, scheming to put this humble family man out of business.
All signs point to Foxx recovering from his medical issues, which is great news, and I’m happy to say that he’s quite good in The Burial, even if I don’t care too much for the movie itself. Truth is, he’s been on a comedic hot streak of late, delivering three great performances this year: They Cloned Tyrone, Strays and The Burial.
Foxx has been a star since the early 1990s, back when he was part of In Living Color and then starring in The Jamie Foxx Show. He did broad big-screen comedies in the ‘90s like Booty Call, but he shifted to more serious fare with Any Given Sunday, then teaming up with director Michael Mann for Ali and Collateral. He got a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for the latter film — he lost, but don’t feel too bad for him, because that same year he won Best Actor for Ray, which cemented his dramatic chops.
I liked him in Ray just fine — as is often the case when actors win prizes for playing real people, the only criterion seems to be, “Wow, he looks/sounds just like that guy!” — and I’ve enjoyed him in plenty of other roles, including Miami Vice, Django Unchained and Just Mercy. (And he’s suitably unhinged in Horrible Bosses.) But he was never a personal favorite — I don’t think I’ve gone to any of his movies thinking, “Oh man, I can’t wait to see what Jamie Foxx does in this!” Add to that the lame recent films he’s done, like that Netflix vampire thing Day Shift, and those cringey BetMGM ads, and I couldn’t help but think that he was in a bit of a rut.
But since the April announcement, he’s put out three comedies (or comedy-dramas) that have reinvigorated my appreciation for him. I don’t think his health scare caused me to reevaluate him, but I’ve definitely enjoyed what he’s released lately, which highlight what can be so funny about Foxx — while also underlining why he’s become a respected serious actor.
The first, They Cloned Tyrone, came out this July, starring John Boyega in the story of a group of Black men and women who stumble upon a terrifying truth — their community is being experimented on by scientists, who are cloning them (among other things, which I won’t spoil). A loving send-up of Blaxploitation tropes, director Juel Taylor’s film is part sci-fi/horror flick and part societal commentary about systemic racism, and Foxx has a ball as Slick Charles, the most clichéd pimp you’ll ever meet. (They Cloned Tyrone is set in modern times, but as far as he’s concerned, the 1970s never ended.) Foxx resists winking at the audience, playing the ridiculously stereotypical character completely straight, which somehow manages to make Charles more believable than he has any right to be. Foxx gets you to laugh at the genre conventions while also being a legitimately funny ‘70s pimp — it’s been too long since he’s gotten to be this motor-mouthed in his put-downs and one-liners, and he walks away with the film.
But even when he’s in a dud, he can bring the goods. (If anything, that’s one of the surest signs of a star.) Which brings me to Strays, which stinks. The movie never builds beyond its “What if adorable dogs cursed a lot?!??” premise, but the one consistent highlight is Foxx as the voice of Bug, a ‘tude-heavy Boston Terrier who takes the sheltered pooch Reggie (Will Ferrell) under his (metaphorical) wing. It’s a predictable setup — Bug talks a big game about being a streetwise badass stray but, of course, he’s actually nursing a broken heart after being abandoned by his human family — but Foxx effortlessly conveys all this dog’s swagger and vulnerability, turning Bug into an endearing braggart. If nothing else, Strays is also indisputable proof that Foxx is really good at swearing. Not surprisingly, the movie’s R-rated dialogue gets less funny the more it’s tossed around, but Bug’s dexterity in dishing out different variations on “fuck” is one of the film’s rare pleasures.
Summer movie season is behind us now — it’s that time on the calendar when Hollywood shifts its focus to winning Oscars. I don’t think Foxx’s turn in The Burial has much of a shot for a nomination, but as Willie E. Gary, he’s been given his best role in a while. Based on a New Yorker article, the film, set in the mid-1990s, introduces us to Willie, the kind of slick personal-injury lawyer who gives the profession a bad name. Going after multimillion-dollar settlements, sweet-talking juries and flexing his oily charm, he’s a shameless ambulance-chaser, which has made him wealthy, landing him on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.
Then one day, into his office steps Jeremiah O’Keefe, who’s been talked into reaching out to Willie. Tommy Lee Jones is in pure Tommy Lee Jones mode, playing Jeremiah as a goodhearted but Grumpy Gus who doesn’t put up with bullshit. He doesn’t care about Willie’s courtroom theatrics — he just wants to win this lawsuit over an evil, uncaring corporation. Problem is, Willie doesn’t do contract law — and he doesn’t represent white clients. (Another thing: He only takes on cases he’s sure he can win.) But after he’s convinced that representing Jeremiah will be good for his image, Willie tackles this lawsuit with gusto — and so does Foxx, who brings all his natural showman energy to the part.
As a musician, and sometimes as an actor, Foxx has exuded a life-of-the-party vibe that’s ingratiating but, also, a little corny. He would be a good Oscar host, although that’s not a punishment I’d wish on anyone. But that slightly cheesy aspect of his outgoing personality is perfectly utilized in The Burial, which with the exception of Foxx is a pretty standard slab of crowd-pleasing Oscar-bait. Not unlike he did with his pimp character in They Cloned Tyrone, Foxx seems to understand what’s deeply dopey about Willie’s clichéd essence. He reminds you that, in real life, some people actually seem like self-parodies — and what makes them so captivating is that they don’t realize (or care) that they are.
If The Burial wasn’t based on actual events, you’d assume Willie was a hacky screenwriter’s lazy conception of a no-scruples lawyer — a little bit Jackie Chiles, a little bit Lionel Hutz — but Foxx figures out how to bring the cliché to life. Willie is cocky as hell, predictably pissing off Jeremiah’s uptight white lawyer (Alan Ruck), but he’s smart and savvy, too — he backs up his bluster with brains. And there’s just enough of a peek into Willie’s more sensitive side that we understand why this blustery persona was created. It’s a remarkable performance because it’s all surface pizzazz, which is incredibly entertaining, but even when Willie slips into a more modest mode, he’s still somewhat slick. Too often brash film characters drop the facade to reveal their true selves, but Foxx seems to understand something about a guy like Willie. He’s never not a showman — he’s never not slightly full of shit. But that’s who he is, and Foxx’s megawatt charisma sells us on this guy. Kinda like Foxx himself, Willie might be a lot, but he’s so fun to be around.
Much of the kick of this by-the-numbers courtroom drama stems from watching Willie cut loose. (As you might imagine, Foxx gets a few self-righteous speeches we’ll be seeing in for-your-consideration clip reels in the ensuing months.) This is a David-versus-Goliath battle in which the little guy takes on the mean billionaires, and the story is told in a very pedestrian, feel-good manner. But Foxx, with the same style and wit that he brought to They Cloned Tyrone and Strays, finds the funny in this straightforward film.
For a long time now, the former In Living Color star has wanted us to forget about his early comedic career, setting his sights on being a dramatic actor who’s occasionally also an action star. But this recent run of roles is proof that he’s still plenty hilarious. Feel better, Jamie Foxx — and please keep doing comedies.