EVAN Baxter in Bruce Almighty, Brick Tamland in Anchorman, Andy in The 40 Year Old Virgin, Maxwell Smart in Get Smart and Gru in Despicable Me – Steve Carell’s career is bursting with memorable big-screen comedy characters.
Yet in 2011, Carell closed the book on his most iconic character. One that made him a hero of television as well as film. After six years of selling paper and general buffoonery, Carell said farewell to Dunder Mifflin and his beloved role as barely competent manager Michael Scott in The Office.
Since then Carell has continued to make audiences laugh with his expertly amusing physical comedy and delivery, including sequels to Despicable Me and Anchorman.
There does, however, appear to have been a big effort on Carrell’s behalf to take more serious roles. In 2014, he donned prosthetics as part of a haunting transformation into twisted millionaire John du Pont for Bennett Miller’s true story drama Foxcatcher.
I remember first seeing the trailer for Foxcatcher with a friend before a screening of Whiplash. The sight of Carrell in this strange state had us crying with laughter – perhaps a result of the compressed format of the trailer and that we had been so accustomed to Carell making us laugh over the years.
A few weeks later when we returned to watch Foxcatcher the laughs had been replaced by shudders. Carell gave a truly haunting portrayal of du Pont.
Mark Kermode was one to herald Carell’s transformation. As he put it in his Guardian review, Carrell delivered: ‘Brando-esque levels of transformation.’ He added: ‘Carell may have played things straight before, but not since Robin Williams in One Hour Photo has a comedian put so much clear water between himself and his back catalogue.’
A year on from Foxcatcher, Carell turned heads once again. This time through his sweary antics as businessman Mark Baum (based on Steve Eisman) in The Big Short, a comedy-drama addressing the 2008 financial crisis. Reunited with Anchorman director Adam McKay, Carell slotted into a stellar cast alongside of some of Hollywood’s best dramatic actors. In some quarters, he received standout praise for his performance.
Among the most glowing was from The Independent’s Christopher Hooten. He commented: ‘It looks as though Bale and Carell will both vie for the Best Actor awards this year (they definitely are at the Golden Globes) and for me it’s the latter who is the most deserving though both are brilliant, with Carell’s character Mark Baum proving the heart of the film – a look of utter self-disgust on his face when he realises exactly what it is he has achieved.’
Following a supporting role in Café Society, Carell stepped into the tennis shoes of Bobby Rigs for another biographical comedy-drama Battle of the Sexes. This time he played the perfect villainous chauvinistic foil to the ever-affable Emma Stone (playing Billie Jean King).
Yet it is Carell’s latest performance, in Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying, that may be his finest since leaving The Office.
As the grieving father of a son killed in Iraq, Carell’s character, Doc, reconnects with two of his old Vietnam buddies for an emotional trip to retrieve his son’s body and lay it to rest.
This role is almost unrecognisable from the loud body language of Carell’s previous work. Instead he spends most of the film on the periphery silently emoting, allowing Bryan Cranston’s character Sal to bring the energy and comedy. Even so, Carell’s subdued performance steals the show.
Cranston spoke about Carell at a Curzon Q&A back in November. He said: ‘The discipline and show of restraint Steve played in that character as the anchor point, and not feel pressured or tempted to grow or emote, was genius. I mean, really beautiful work – and harder.’
In the past five years, Carell has proved his versatility as an actor without abandoning his comedic base. Although we may never stop quoting Brick Tamland and Michael Scott, Carell now has a legacy that stretches beyond news rooms and paper offices.
In The Last Flag Flying, Carell has given us a performance of admirable subtlety. One that any ‘serious’ dramatic actor would be proud of. His flag is flying high. In the ascendency.