Senior Film and Media Reporter @BrentALang
“Advantageous,” a brainy new science-fiction film that debuted this week at the Sundance Film Festival, represents a major departure for Ken Jeong.
The comic actor best known for letting it all hang out in “The Hangover,” reveals himself in a whole different way. Jeong plays Han, a restaurant owner who is plagued by guilt after his affair with his wife’s sister results in a child. It’s a small, but pivotal role, and one he plays straight.
“I’m in exploration mode,” said Jeong, who did double duty as a producer on “Advantageous.” “Comedy will also be my first love, but it’s natural for every comedic actor to want to expand their range and see if they can do it.”
Jeong isn’t turning back on the roles that made famous. He’ll return to Greendale Community College as Señor Ben Chang, a former Spanish teacher with a tenuous grip on reality, in “Community.” The cult hit was cancelled by NBC last year, but was given a reprieve when Yahoo opted to produce a sixth season of the critically adored, but low rated series. It debuts on March 17.
“‘Community’ is such a miracle show,” said Jeong. “This is actually my favorite season we’ve ever shot, I think maybe because of some of the subtext. We’re survivors and we’re doing this again and that’s a part of it.”
Just because the series is free of broadcast censors, don’t expect a major overhaul to the absurdist formula that made it a favorite with the Twitter set. There will still be pop culture and meta-references aplenty.
“Just because we’re on Yahoo, it’s not like it’s a raunchy comedy now,” said Jeong. Creator Dan Harmon had some interesting advice for the cast and their new backers, Jeong reports, “He said, ‘I want it to be exactly what it was. Almost the same length. Maybe more British.’”
It wasn’t Jeong’s work on the small-screen that landed him his “Advantageous” role. Co-star Jacqueline Kim said she recommended Jeong to director Jennifer Phang after seeing him play demented and frequently naked gangster Leslie Chow in “The Hangover” while on a plane trip. Given his talent for making people laugh, she knew he’d be up to the challenge.
“That’s the hardest acting to do — comedy,” said Kim. “To be funny, you have to be a master of so many things, and have a deep understanding of human beings.”
For his part, Jeong said he was impressed by the way that “Advantageous” used its futuristic setting to explore topics of gender disparity and body image issues. The film focuses on a woman who undergoes a dicey cosmetic procedure in order to provide for her young daughter.
“As a parent of twin girls, I’m intimately aware of the pressures of having them thrive in society and in school right now,” said Jeong. “They’re universal themes.”
“Advantageous” is a work of almost daunting ambition. The futuristic world that director and writer Jennifer Phang and Kim, who co-wrote the script in addition to starring in the film, create is positively Darwinian. The one percent are still doing just fine, but the rest of society is rocked by bombings, political unrest and crippling unemployment levels.
“I’m looking at a future where the economy is more fractured,” said Phang. “The class divide is growing wider and the diminishment of the middle class has continued. It’s a time when there are more desperate people and more affluent people than ever before.”
Parallels to this current era of uncertainty are clearly intentional.