Dane Cook, the stand-up comedian, hasn't written any new material in months. He hasn't performed onstage since February, and he's not sure he'll ever pick up the microphone again.
"I don't want to say I've retired, but this is an important time to shift my energy into something new," said Cook, who takes a dark turn in the ensemble drama "Answers to Nothing." "If I'm going to gonna do stand-up again — I respect the art form so much, it's glamorous to me — and if I partake in it again, I want to feel like I'm lending something to it."
That might sound like a surprising revelation from a man who has had more success in stand-up than almost any modern-day comedian — he once played two sold-out shows in a single night at Madison Square Garden. But Cook has spent the last few years reconsidering his professional options in the wake of a series of personal tragedies.
In 2006, Cook lost his mother to cancer, and only one week after her death, Cook's father revealed he too was suffering from the disease. Within 10 months, it had claimed his life. The following year, Cook discovered that he had been bilked out of $12 million by his half brother, Darryl McCauley, who had worked as the performer's business manager from the early 1990s until 1998.
Faced with that magnitude of heartbreak, Cook threw himself into work, launching a two-year comedy tour. He also auditioned for the role in "Answers to Nothing," a low-budget independent film opening Friday. The part? Ryan, a guy mired in an unhappy marriage who has an affair with a sexy rock 'n' roller (Aja Volkman) while his wife (Elizabeth Mitchell) is undergoing fertility treatment.
Meanwhile, Ryan is trying to help his mother (Barbara Hershey) come to grips with her husband leaving — something Cook could relate to, since he witnessed the breakdown of his parents' relationship when he was in junior high school.
"This was a character who was burdened, and for the first time in my life, I felt burdened in such a massive way," said Cook, 39, sitting in a Sunset Plaza restaurant a few blocks below his house in the Hollywood Hills. "It was certainly something different than what people have seen me do before. And I wanted to try to not let what has happened to me become somebody else's victory. I wanted to use it for my own progress."
Though Cook might have been ready to tackle darker fare, the film's director, Matthew Leutwyler ("Dead & Breakfast"), was initially hesitant about casting the actor in his movie.
"Dane wasn't an obvious choice," admitted the filmmaker. "But we talked, and I realized that he knew that there was a lot riding on this for him in terms of being taken seriously as an actor. He doesn't want to just be the kind of comedian that's only going to do these high-profile broad studio comedies."
Co-star Mitchell said she was expecting to encounter Cook's more gregarious side on set but found something deeper in the comic.
"I came in thinking he'd be a laugh a minute, but he's very stoic. He reminds me a little bit of Matthew Fox on 'Lost,' " said the actress, who co-starred with Fox on the ABC show. "He does his own thing. I can't believe he did this when he was going through so much. Most people would be unable to move."
In some ways, Cook was ripe for a bit of reinvention. He arguably has as many detractors as fans — those who derisively dismiss him as too good-looking and not funny enough — and his attempts to forge a career as a movie star haven't gone smoothly. Within the last decade, Cook has starred in critically panned gross-out comedies including "Good Luck Chuck" and "Employee of the Month" that barely registered at the box office.
In recent years, Cook had begun to show more depth on screen, taking supporting roles in progressively serious-minded movies like "Mr. Brooks" and "Dan in Real Life." Still, he found himself stymied by the goofy comedies he'd been a part of earlier in his career — many of which he now says he took just for the paycheck.
"Trying to pay the rent at that time in my life wasn't easy, and we all want nice things," he said. "You allow yourself to do those things because you say, 'Well, if Michael Caine can do "Jaws 4" ....' But there's been some steps along the way [when] I had to take to realize what I shouldn't do."
Growing up, Cook idolized Robin Williams and Steve Martin; he constantly watched Martin Scorsese's "The King of Comedy," imagining he might one day be able to show the versatility Jerry Lewis exhibited in the 1983 film. So over the last year — his first off the road in ages — he said he's taken time to rethink his career.
"I thought about how do I really want to grow and challenge myself?" he said, opting for ice water — he has never had an alcoholic beverage. "Who is a fan of mine I can reach out to and say, 'Can I take you to lunch?' I called my agent to say, 'Is Ben Affleck a fan of mine? Because we're both Boston guys, and I'm inspired by what he's accomplished.'"
Cook hasn't landed a sit-down with Affleck yet, but he's made strides on other fronts. In September, he inked a development deal with NBC for his own network comedy series, a half-hour show he's slated to headline next fall.
"I'm at that point where it's like, I've done so much with stand-up comedy, and I've taken it everywhere I've wanted to take it," he said. "I'd like to be in people's homes. I'd like to reach all of those fans in a way where I don't have to do a two-year tour to get to everybody."
Cook wrapped his last tour a year ago. It was something, he says now, he needed for multiple reasons: For one, his fans pumped him up at a time when he was struggling emotionally. Plus, he was in financial trouble, and the tour "saved his business." (Cook's half brother, who grew up with the comedian in a home in Arlington, Mass., was ordered to repay Cook last December and is serving a six-year prison sentence.)
Despite his success in the world of stand-up, though, Cook is still one of the most reviled comedians on the circuit. No matter that one of his recent comedy albums was the highest charting of its genre in 28 years: To many, Cook is just a smug hack whose fame — largely generated via MySpace — is undeserved.
Many critics abhor his manic style of delivery and claim he relies upon lowbrow humor to get laughs.
Director Leutwyler recalled being surprised to learn what a polarizing force Cook is.
"Before we had screened the movie for anybody, there were people who had rated it a zero on IMDB. People just said, 'We hate this guy,'" said Leutwyler. "You look at all the terrible things that actors, writers, even Paris Hilton have done, and they don't get the kind of hate mail Dane does."
That level of vitriol sometimes worries Cook, he says.
"There's those moments of fear where you think, 'Oh, is this going to define me? Is this a 'Scarlet Letter' type of moment?'" he said. "I had this really great five-year run around 2005: Every DJ in the world is singing your praises and playing your clips on the 5 o'clock funnies. And now, the pendulum has swung.
"To many people, I'm truly not funny. There was a good chunk of time where it was unsettling, but now, I understand it. I accept it. It doesn't define me."