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A Serious Man: How Steve Carell Became Our Most Surprising Dramatic Actor

His latest film, ‘Beautiful Boy,’ certifies the ‘Office’ star as one of our finest performers. There’s nothing funny about that.

Steve Carell wearing a shirt with ruffles around his neck Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The 2003 Jim Carrey comedy Bruce Almighty was the first DVD that I ever bought. For all its flaws, this ridiculous movie left an impression on a young French girl. “Is this what Hollywood considers funny?” was one of the many questions that sprung to my mind. But so did “Who is this weird-sounding actor who steals the spotlight from Carrey even as he does nothing more inspired than mumble incomprehensibly pretty much every time he shows up on screen?”

This man was of course Steven Carell, then still an ex–Daily Show correspondent who would soon drop the ‘n’ to be just Steve. It was his ability to scream like a man possessed (while never going too far like Carrey) yet remain somewhat deadpan in his expression—with his serious eyes fixed straight ahead at the camera that his TV journalist character was addressing—that made me at once deeply uncomfortable and fascinated. In the 15 years since Bruce Almighty, Carell has used this same composure in the face of discomfort to great comedic effect, in films such as Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (as yet another stoically deranged TV reporter) or Crazy, Stupid, Love, and still more memorably on television as Michael Scott in the now-iconic American version of The Office. But Carell’s interests as an actor have changed in recent years. The events he confronts in his latest film, Beautiful Boy, are no laughing matter: He plays David Sheff, a journalist and a father trying to help his son (Timothée Chalamet) recover from devastating substance addiction. This very serious movie is far from Carell’s first attempt at making his mark in more “reputable”—i.e, Oscar-contending—roles. These are the roles that have forced us to take him seriously.

Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

The year following his resounding success as star and cowriter of Judd Apatow’s comedy The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Carell surprised and touched many in Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’s über-Sundance movie Little Miss Sunshine. Carell’s Frank Ginsberg is, for his part, the quintessential loser, according to his sister’s unbearably phony husband, Richard (Greg Kinnear), but also according to himself. He’s a Proust scholar—and thus an expert on the work of a pathologically lonely and physically infirm gay author whose gigantic oeuvre most people never read in its entirety (when they even try to). Frank tried to kill himself after having his heart broken by one of his young male students and losing his house in the process, as he explains in a moment of remembrance of things past. Carell gets laughs here, layering sarcasm over Frank’s evident good nature, but despite his own problems, he’s kind to those around him, from niece Olive (Abigail Breslin), with her delusions of child-pageantry glory, to frustrated teen Dwayne (Paul Dano) and his simmering anger. Although the Oscar went to Alan Arkin’s more showy asshole act as Grandpa Edwin, Carell brings admirable and much-needed authenticity to the ensemble. By never overplaying his character’s sadness, Carell reveals Frank’s tendency to avoid and minimize his pain and gives him more dimension than the film’s contrived road-trip-to-the-beauty-pageant plot can muster. With his high-pitched voice and his kind but oh-so-sad blue eyes, Carell makes Frank as lovable as he is miserable. Carell is the perfect incarnation of middle-age male malaise—an anxiety that is guardedly self-aware from years of lived experience, but also cuts deep for having lasted this long.

Foxcatcher (2014)

To play John du Pont, a real yet almost cartoonishly dangerous person, Carell turned his aptitude in the realms of discomfort and oddness up several notches. Like Frank Ginsberg, du Pont doesn’t like himself very much, but unlike the Proust scholar, he would never admit it in a long or even a short sentence. For John, hell is other people, especially his haughty and judgmental mother Jean (Vanessa Redgrave). In Bennett Miller’s grim, chilling and all-around bizarre 2014 fact-based film Foxcatcher, pent-up feelings and mommy issues are translated by the actor into syncopated delivery, unreadable but disturbing looks and occasional physical outbursts.

“When something would go wrong, he would just kind of push it down and do something which he considered normal, that nobody else does,” said Miller about du Pont, the lonely and controlling multimillionaire who decided to subsidize and coach a wrestling team that sent athletes to the 1988 Olympics, in itself a strange thing to do for a man of his age and status. I am surprised by how well I still remember certain line readings by Carell, but perhaps I shouldn’t be: His nasal voice here is whispery and irregular, forcing complete attention just as it paradoxically revulses. Du Pont is unpredictable in his conversations and actions, as though Carell’s character from Anchorman had been thrown into a thriller. Between impulsively repeating “I love lamp” and “ornithologist, philatelist, philanthropist,” there isn’t much difference; Du Pont simply grew up wealthier. In his first true Oscar bid (he got the nomination), Carell went beyond physical transformation, gaining a few pounds and adding a prosthetic nose but also, and more startlingly, altering his physical cadence, never worried that he might make Du Pont look too ridiculous. Because it takes itself so seriously, I’m not sure that Foxcatcher itself is a great film. But Carell’s devotion to the truth of his character—from his mortifying weirdness to his heartbreaking loneliness, and even his laughable arrogance—proved that he could use his casual strangeness to become a unique and distressingly human villain.

The Big Short (2015)

Adam McKay’s postmodern, fully depressing comedy about the few investors who predicted and tried to cash in on the 2007 economic crash is rife with excellent performances. Like the director’s masterpiece Step Brothers, The Big Short relies on the talent for improvisation and the naturalistic acting of its cast members, but centers on a story that’s (only slightly) more rational than that of two adult men living with their parents. McKay knows how to direct and edit cinematically, letting his actors play off each other to create truthful and endlessly refreshing dynamics worthy of the greatest 1970s American movies. Cassavetes and Altman would be proud of the superbly puerile relationship that McKay sets up between 20-something investors Charlie Geller (the great John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), or the bizarre scenes between socially dysfunctional Michael Burry (a yet-again transformed Christian Bale) and literally anyone he interacts with.

In that troupe, Steve Carell fits right in with the easy and offbeat conversational tone he perfected on The Office, but his character occupies a rather lonely place. His Mark Baum, like a true ’70s New Hollywood figure, is the last angry man, an eccentric and pessimistic financier who, despite his obsession with finding flaws in the system, still can’t help but be astonished by the evil ways of capitalism. As the entire American housing market starts collapsing due to stupidity and outright fraud, Baum can only declare, “I thought we were better than this, I really did,” to a crowd of mildly concerned investors, like a Travis Bickle who doesn’t get the keys to the city but instead bleeds out on his couch, misunderstood and mocked.

Baum has a team working for him, which includes Rafe Spall and Jeremy Strong (who recently returned to the world of big money problems and fast-talking crooks in Succession, about which The Ringer has published just a few pieces) and their group has its share of profane, explosive, and funny exchanges—especially when Ryan Gosling’s wolf of Wall Street Jared Vennett shows up. Baum nevertheless spends a lot of time inside his own head or screaming at strangers, scandalized by the laissez-faire attitude of both the average capitalist and the big moneymen above him.

If Carell’s terrible wig, together with the character’s ironic position as a banker who hates banking, at first make him ridiculous, Baum soon turns out to be the most logical, generous, and admirable man in his profession. Carell’s everyman quality matches with Baum’s awkwardness and his sense of being out of touch with the people around him. The actor’s sensitivity, meanwhile, makes Baum’s personal and professional heartbreaks look genuine, and genuinely upsetting to witness. The great vulnerability Carell revealed in Little Miss Sunshine (and, in a way, in Foxcatcher) here helps highlight, in counterpoint, the inhumane cruelty of the financiers who ruined millions of lives with their greed. After his barely heard speech, Baum finally answers his phone to talk to his associate and Carell, with a total lack of self-awareness in this moment of altruism, rubs his eyes and delivers the line that truly hurts today: “I have a feeling in a few years people are going to be doing what they always do when the economy tanks: They will be blaming immigrants and poor people.”

Last Flag Flying (2017)

After playing an unusually compassionate and borderline masochistically noble character to address the problems of capitalism, Carell let go of all exaggeration to portray a regular good man struggling with the consequences of American militarism in Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying. The actor’s natural kindness is here coupled with signs of heartbreak rather than anger, because his character Larry “Doc” Shepherd seems part of a societal problem that the film confronts. Larry’s son has died fighting in Iraq—supposedly heroically—but the father finds it hard to be proud in the aftermath. As a Marine, he too fought in another useless war, but got out of Vietnam alive and perhaps didn’t question America’s war effort enough to protect his own son from his country’s greedy and careless interventionism. When Larry first meets Sal (Bryan Cranston) again after 30 years, he sits at his bar in silence. But Linklater’s camera is compelled by Carell’s face, where the story as yet untold is beginning to show.

With an amused smile under his mustache, Carell stares down at his drink, looking more like a little boy than a man, as though reconnecting with his buddy has brought him back to his clueless and intimidating youth, but a deep sadness also marks his age. Together with Laurence Fishburne’s Reverend Richard Mueller, the three protagonists of Last Flag Flying are more or less supposed to be the 2003 versions of the trio from The Last Detail, Hal Ashby’s 1973 masterpiece about the aimless present and daunting future of three Navy officers who realize just how expendable they are. Larry reveals himself to have been the Meadows of the band, a young and inexperienced nice boy who his friends opened up to the world in their typically macho and drunken ways.

If the film is sometimes clunky when connecting past and present (Fishburne himself seems unconvinced by Mueller’s religious awakening), Carell’s emotional yet subdued performance brings together Larry’s youthful naivete and his current resignation to loneliness and quietude. However stark and heartbreaking the contrast between his young and his older self, Larry is a coherent character whose life is drawn in a few brushstrokes. Carell’s childish embarrassment and hilarity as the group recalls the time they brought Larry to a brothel to lose his virginity is touching when it could easily have been tasteless, because the actor understands the tenderness of this memory, however grotesque it might be in its details. Surrounded by his long lost friends, watching over his son’s casket, Larry feels for a moment the great sense of communion that made him enjoy the military when he was a youth, and which his son appreciated just as much. Carell looks like a young man behind his big mustache and grey hair, yet his eyes shine with a melancholy that only a boy grown all the way up can know.

Beautiful Boy (2018)

Despite years of playing serious men in serious movies, Carell still struggles in 2018 to not be funny when he screams. His shouting “I don’t know how to help him!” in the trailer for Beautiful Boy, in which he portrays a father struggling to save his son (Chalamet) from drug addiction, reminded me of the actor’s Michael Scott or Brick Tamland days. But it turns out that Felix Van Groeningen’s film gives Carell plenty of space to use his dramatic chops and convince anyone who wasn’t already persuaded that he can make us cry as much as he can make us laugh.

As David Sheff, Carrell is, yet again, a sensitive dad, similar to his Last Flag Flying character but with more tenacity, and confronts yet another big issue, in opioid addiction. If the title Beautiful Boy seems simplistic, it’s only because David’s view of his son Nic is naive and narrow. He can’t believe that the perfect boy he raised could have become someone addicted to meth and also—somewhat more shockingly for David—a liar. The nurturing rapport between father and son shown in flashbacks has Carell play opposite Jack Dylan Grazer (the wonderful kid actor revealed in It last year), toward whom his inherent tenderness flows naturally.

But it is when David tries to communicate with his teenage son, and Carell’s vulnerability and generosity are laid bare, that the actor is most riveting. David’s dilemma between trusting Nic and interrogating him relentlessly to better protect him from himself allows Carell moments of emotional ambiguity when his unpretentious acting style shines. David rarely loses his temper, choosing instead to learn more about addiction to try to communicate with his son, and floods him with more love and compassion as he falls deeper and deeper into addiction. This hyper-rational and optimistic approach is familiar territory for Carell’s capital-G Good Men, and, like Frank in Little Miss Sunshine, Mark Baum in The Big Short, or Larry in Last Flag Flying, it is the contrast between David’s hope and his eventual resignation that makes Carell a compelling screen presence in spite of his comedic legacy. When he’s serious, Steve Carell is a beautiful man.