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Movies Where Actors Play Exaggerated Versions Of Themselves

Actors playing themselves is almost as old as cinema itself, breaking the fourth wall in a most unusual way. Cameo spots have been common in recent decades too, whether it's David Bowie in "Zoolander" or Elon Musk in "Iron Man 2." But every once in a while, the lead start of a movie plays a character based on a hyper-exaggerated, fictionalized version of themself. It gives the actor a chance stretch the public's imagination of what their real life might be like.

Sometimes it's to poke fun at their own celebrity, and others times it's to provide insight into the struggles and life of a Hollywood star. Often it's a bizarre comedy, an over-the-top story made all the more ridiculous by making its lead a real life movie star playing themselves. In some cases, it's a role inspired by the actor's real life, but different enough where they get a new name. But however it's done, it provides a unique starting point for some of the quirkiest stories. Whether it's a dark drama, a light-hearted farce, or an unconventional fantasy, these are the most interesting movies that feature major movie stars playing exaggerated versions of themselves.

Being John Malkovich

The feature film debut for both screenwriter Charlie Kaufman ("Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind") and Spike Jonze ("Synedoche, New York"), "Being John Malkovich" landed in 1999 and still ranks among the actor's best works. A mix of off-the wall comedy and psychological drama, it also has elements of horror. As the title suggests, the film stars John Malkovich as himself. The movie centers on a man named Charles Schwartz (John Cusack), a down-on-his-luck puppeteer unhappy in life, who discovers a doorway that leads him into Malkovich ... literally.

Once inside a secret passageway, Schwartz inhabits Malkovich's body, and slowly begins to exert control over the actor's actions. Eventually, he takes over completely, and turns the famous actor's life upside down. Between Schwartz, his wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz), and his coworker Maxine (Catherine Keener), the three each have different experiences inside Malkovich. Lotte becomes obsessed with becoming a man, and while she is in Malkovich's body, grows feelings for Maxine, while Maxine wants to use the passageway to make money.

A stunning exploration of self, "Being John Malkovich" is more than just a quirky comedy, delving into real issues of identity as Charles, Maxine, and Lotte use their experience in John Malkovich to re-evaluate their lives. The film was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Director, with Keener getting a nod for Best Supporting Actress as well.

JCVD

By 2008, aging action star Jean-Claude Van Damme hadn't appeared in a major motion picture in nearly a decade, instead starring in a series of low budget actioner flicks and direct-to-video flops. It seemed like his best days were behind him it when he starred in the surprise head-turner, "JCVD," a dark drama where he played a fictionalized version of himself. In the film, Van Damme is an out of work actor whose life is falling apart. His agent struggles to find him any meaningful — or well-paying — work. He also loses custody of his daughter, who he already has a strained relationship with, after a court battle.

But just as Van Damme's life hits rock bottom and things seem like they can't get much worse, the former action hero finds himself caught up in a bank robbery. Taken hostage by a heavily armed group of thieves, Van Damme is mistaken for one of the criminals himself, and becomes the go-between with police. While attempting to prevent the crooks from killing any hostages, Van Damme also uses the opportunity to get nearly half a million dollars for himself, too. A dark, sobering drama, it's a wild exaggeration of Van Damme's struggles, but also a deep, meditative look at a star who has lost everything.

My Name Is Bruce

Mark Verheiden, the writer of Jean-Claude Van Damme's "Timecop," teamed with Bruce Campbell to produce the comedy-horror movie "My Name Is Bruce" in 2007. The movie was co-written and directed by Campbell, who starred in the exaggerated film about his own offbeat adventures. The former "Evil Dead" actor appears as himself, where he just completed filming a sci-fi epic and is looking for his next project. At the same time, Jeff — a teen fan of Campbell's — along with three friends, have unwittingly awoken the spirit of a Chinese god. Jeff is the lone survivor of its murder spree, as it unleashes its power on the town of Gold Lick, Oregon. Kidnapping the action hero, Jeff needs Campbell's help to defeat the ancient evil and save the town from its onslaught.

Campbell is in way over his head and doesn't even realize what's happening at first, assuming it's the new project his agent has gotten him ... even though he doesn't see any cameras around. But when Campbell finally figures out what's going on, he flees the scene, leaving everyone disappointed that he's not the wise-cracking enemy of evil they know from his movies. Now Campbell must embrace his inner hero and return to vanquish the monster, save the town, and inspire his fans once more. 

The King Of Staten Island

While Pete Davidson doesn't literally play himself by name in "The King Of Staten Island," the "Saturday Night Live" star plays a character based on his own life in a movie he co-wrote with Judd Apatow, who also directed. Co-starring Marisa Tomei, Bill Burr, Pamela Adlon, and Steve Buscemi, the movie dramatizes Davidson's imaginary life in the New York borough. Like his own real life, his character Scott Carlin is dealing with a number of medical issues, copes with his struggles with frequent pot use, and is still troubled by the death of his firefighter father, who was killed in a blaze when he was a child.

Scott is upset when his mother begins dating Ray (Burr), the first man she's been with since the death of his father, and becomes incensed when he discovers that he is a firefighter. Fearing for his mother's well-being, Scott is determined to sabotage their relationship, while Ray wants Scott to move out of the family home. A quasi-biographical look at the comedian's life, based on many of his own experiences and feelings, Davidson told The Ringer that "The King of Staten Island" is what his life might have been had he not gotten famous.

We'll Meet Again

"We'll Meet Again" is a 1943 musical that tells the story of Peggy Brown, a young entertainer and dancer. Set at the height of World War II, in London during the blitz, Peggy is in a large concert hall during a German air raid, and finds herself there with an audience overnight for shelter. As bombs rain down outside that evening, Brown sings to the refugees and eventually strikes up a friendship with a man named Frank Foster. After the raid, the two become singer and song-writing partners, with Brown rising to fame when one of their songs is played on the radio. Eventually, Brown takes her talents to the European theater, where she sings for troops fighting in the war.

An old Hollywood classic, "We'll Meet Again" starred singer and actress Vera Lynn in a story inspired by her own life, having shot to prominence after entertaining large groups seeking shelter during WWII air raids in London. The movie uses Lynn's most famous song as its title, with a newly recorded version of the tune closing out the film.

The Congress

A mix of live action and animated sequences, "The Congress" is a surprising science fiction drama with an all-star cast led by Robin Wright playing an exaggerated version of herself. Alongside Jon Hamm, Paul Giamatti, Danny Huston, Harvey Keitel, and Kodi Smit-McPhee, Wright stars as herself, an aging and struggling actress who cannot find work. She spends her days caring for her teenaged son (Smit-McPhee) who suffers a terrible genetic disorder that is sapping him of both his vision and hearing. With nothing left to lose, Wright sells her digital likeness to a new studio that wants to use her image to create a completely CGI actress to star in their films. This new computer generated star becomes a star herself, and the center of an action-adventure franchise called "Rebel Robot Robin."

Flash forward 20 years, and the world has become a bizarre digital landscape where people can create artificial avatars in the metaverse, but must take mind-altering drugs as part of the experience. On the verge of renewing her contract and becoming a part of a new initiative to allow users to sacrifice their identity in the virtual utopia, Wright begins to have second thoughts, and meets a rebel leader (Hamm) who is fighting back against the new status quo. Now Wright struggles between fighting to save the digital future, or returning to the real world to be with her dying son. An ambitious film, it was largely overlooked on its release, but praised as a visually stunning, original vision of the future.

Don's Plum

The low-budget indie film "Don's Plum" was the source of much controversy, and was never officially released in the United States. Pitched to actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire as a short film, the filmmakers allegedly went behind their backs and cut it into a feature, angering the stars. The subject of a major lawsuit, both Maguire and DiCaprio reportedly didn't want the movie seen, but relented after asking for much of the footage cut. According to some reports, Maguire himself was displeased because he felt his character — largely ad-libbed and based on his own life — gave away too much about his real self.

A slice of life drama, it the two actors essentially play themselves, who at the time were both regulars in the gossip columns for their late night jaunts, womanizing, and gambling. In the film, the two friends do just that, meeting for weekly club hangouts, partying with different women every night, and getting into plenty of trouble. While not well-reviewed by critics — who knocked it for its lack of traditional structure and a sloppy assembly of sequences strung together with little story — it remains nevertheless a fascinating relic of Maguire and DiCaprio's early days, when they were both on the cusp of major movie stardom.

Space Jam

A classic sports family movie today, "Space Jam" was released in 1996 as a quirky starring vehicle for the recently un-retired NBA legend Michael Jordan. Oddly playing a more down-to-Earth version of himself who lives in an ordinary suburban neighborhood, Jordan crosses into the world of "Looney Tunes" when he is drafted to help them win a basketball game against a race of sinister cartoon alien conquerors. The villains, meanwhile, form a team of their own called the Monstars stealing the basketball powers of five NBA league stars, including Patrick Ewing, Larry Johnson, Muggsy Bogues, Charles Barclay, and Shawn Bradley.

A raucously funny mostly animated comedy, it quickly became a cartoon classic. After more than 20 years of starts and stops on a sequel, "Space Jam: A New Legacy" was finally released in 2021, this time starring Jordan's heir apparent, 21st century basketball legend LeBron James. Though the followup film couldn't quite match the quality of the original, the sequel continued the franchise's fun factor. Two decades after Jordan, LeBron played an exaggerated version of himself, and teamed up with Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Elmer Fudd and more in a high stakes game of basketball to save the world.

This Is The End

A comedy from 2013, "This Is The End" is actually a feature-length adaptation of a previous short film produced by Seth Rogen titled "Jay and Seth Versus the Apocalypse." While the mini-film starred Rogen and his "Knocked Up" co-star Jay Baruchel, the full length version "This Is The End" also stars James Franco ("Pineapple Express"), Jonah Hill ("Moneyball"), Danny McBride ("Your Highness"), and Craig Robinson ("The Office"). They play fictional versions of themselves, as an apocalyptic event strikes while they are all at Franco's housewarming party. After an Earthquake that destroys much of Los Angeles, the gang of Hollywood homeboys must fight to stay alive through what feels like the end of days.

During their adventure, they encounter several of their famous friends (including Emma Watson, Channing Tatum, Paul Rudd, and Kevin Hart), get possessed by demons, and learn that they're actually in the middle of the prophesied Rapture. A Rogen classic, "This Is The End" is another off-the-wall comedy as only he can deliver it, a drug-fueled mix of madcap insanity and fast-paced hijinks.

Cold Souls

Starring as a bizarre version of himself in the dark fantasy drama "Cold Souls," actor Paul Giamatti finds himself struggling to deal with the after-affects of his own performances. He's become so engrossed by his roles that he nearly becomes his characters, and fights to return to his own self after each performance. While filming a new movie based on an Anton Chekov play, Giamatti learns of a new clinic that can remove a person's soul and keep it in cold storage. Believing this could help his predicament, he volunteers for the procedure and returns from it a new man. But without a soul, the actor isn't just new — he's cold and unfeeling, and it endangers both his marriage and his career. Needing a fix, he returns to the clinic to receive the soul of a dead Russian poet instead.

A mysterious woman breaks into the facility and steals Giamatti's soul, believing it to be that of actor Al Pacino, and thinking it can help its new owner become a better actor. Now the fantastical Giamatti must retrieve his own soul before it's lost forever, and in the process he'll learn as much about himself and the meaning of life than he ever expected. Part comedy, part psychological sci-fi, the 2009 film has much in common in tone, concept, and with similar themes as Kaufman's "Being John Malkovich."

I'm Still Here

Nearly a piece of performance art, "I'm Still Here" from actor Joaquin Phoenix resulted in some bizarre real-life behavior, with appearances on TV that left fans scratching their heads before they even knew about the film. Presented at first as a true-to-life documentary, we all know now that it was just an act, with the actor spending nearly two years pretending to leave Hollywood behind for a career in rap music. Now seen as the mockumentary it is, it chronicles Phoenix's departure from Tinseltown as he embarks on a new personal journey, writing and performing music, and even attempting to get a record made with a major producer and label. 

The project began in 2008, with Phoenix publicly announcing that he was retiring from acting, in a major shock to the industry not long after his performance in the Johnny Cash bio-pic "Walk The Line" was met with rave reviews. After a series of bizarre public appearances, Phoenix and his friend and producer Casey Affleck documented his concocted scheme to turn to music, all while convincing the world that the very scripted life change was in fact the real deal. A testament to the actor's dedication, he produced no acting work until after its release, focusing on selling the fictional reality of "I'm Still Here."

My Dinner With Andre

Though most known today for his roles in "Toy Story," "The Princess Bride" or "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine," actor Wallace Shawn was, in the early 1980s, best known as a playwright. In "My Dinner With Andre," Shawn plays himself as a successful theater scribe. He meets his friend, struggling director Andre Gregory, for a dinner where they discuss the philosophical differences in their radically opposing world views. Andre tells his friend "Wally" stories of his trips across the globe, and despairs of the status of his life. He a simple man of simple pleasures who craves no high status, contrasting with the wealth and success of the big city playwright.

With no real narrative structure, the film simply meanders around the conversation between the two men, in what you might expect to be a sloppy, haphazard and tedious film. Instead, "My Dinner With Andre" delights as a brilliantly written and impeccably performed story that feels appropriately like a two-man, single-set play, a wonderful and moving story of friendship. Receiving universal acclaim, renowned critic Roger Ebert gushed over the film on its release, calling it "astonishing in its audacity ... with passion, wit, scandal, whimsy, vision, hope, and despair."

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent

Actor Nicolas Cage has impressed audiences for more decades. Whether it was his earliest scene-stealing performances in hits like "Leaving Las Vegas," his over-the-top action roles in "The Rock" and two "National Treasure" films, or his more recent indie dramas like "Pig," Cage boasts a filmography that has something for everyone to love. His 2022 film "The Unbearable Weight Of Massive Talent" leverages the connection Cage still keeps with his legions of fans all over the world, with the actor playing an exaggerated version of himself: A washed up and struggling thespian desperate for work while his personal life is falling apart.

But the only job he can find is outside of the movie business when a Nicolas Cage super-fan named Javi Gutierrez (Pedro Pascal) hires him to appear at his birthday party for a fat $1 million payday. Cage is out of his element when he learns that Gutierrez is more than a Cage superfan, he's also an international gun-runner, and the target of a CIA operation. From there, Nicolas Cage goes from struggling actor to CIA asset, not unlike a character out one of his films. Receiving rave reviews for Cage and Pascal's charismatic performances, "The Unbelievable Weight Of Massive Talent" is an old school action-comedy treat.