Back when Stephen Colbert was on the Daily Show, he once made a personnel suggestion his bosses took seriously. He said, "You guys should hire this guy named Steve Carell, there's nothing he can't make funny." Colbert had started out as Carell's understudy at Second City in Chicago, but had outpaced Carell's success and brought his former colleague along for the ride. Both parlayed their success on the Daily Show to starring roles in half-hour shows of their own, Carell in NBC's The Office and Colbert in Comedy Central's The Colbert Report.
Carell wasn't second to Colbert for long. After becoming one of the biggest stars on network TV, he found success on the big screen with a character he'd first played at Second City: The 40 Year Old Virgin. Playing an emotionally arrested romantic illiterate -- sort of a cross between Tom Hanks in Big and Robin Williams in Hook (in a movie my friend Nick Antosca called an "The Endearing Potential Serial Killer Comedy") -- Carell saw his first starring role become the sleeper hit of 2005. He was so sweetly appealing despite a premise that otherwise would have seemed too awkward to work, that the movie's ending shot, of Carell and his romantic interest doing a psychedelic dance with the cult-like band the Polyphonic Spree, seemed like a fitting conclusion. Sadly, the success of one of the earliest characters he ever developed seems to have turned it into one of the only roles he'll ever play.
The following year, Carell appeared in yet another sleeper hit, winning critical acclaim for his work in Little Miss Sunshine. He played a role with virtually no laughs in a comedy so dark it spared nearly all of its jokes for Alan Arkin and another bizarre dance sequence, this time not quite at the credit roll but just a few minutes before the fade. It was a good movie, but was even lighter on comedy and heavier on drama than you'd expect for a dysfunctional family comedy-drama. Still, Carell's character Frank Hoover wasn't a huge step sideways from the Andy Stitzer, the 40-year-old virgin. Hoover had attempted suicide after being jilted by a gay lover; while he had marginally more relationship experience than Stitzer, the layers of repression and depression surrounding his love history were more or less imported wholesale, and easily portable.
After the ill-fated Evan Almighty, the sequel to a film Carell had done before 40 Year Old Virgin's success might have allowed him to be more choosy, he brought his patented sad sack to another romantic comedy, Dan in Real Life, and early box office returns indicate it's another modest hit. This time, he's Dan Burns, an advice columnist with (you guessed it!) a dead wife, three daughters, and a whole lot of emotional baggage. Thanks to a beautiful woman he finds he's able to love again, and the movie ends in yet another dance sequence, this time at his wedding to Juliette Binoche, but frankly it's hard to see why she bothers. Considering the disastrous romantic histories of most of Carell's characters, if the movie ever gets a sequel, she's toast.
Comedians are often praised when they switch to drama, as Tom Hanks and Robin Williams both have done Oscar-winningly, though most actors say that comedy's the more difficult of the two -- "Dying is easy, comedy's hard," as the saying goes. Most recently, Bill Murray has successfully managed to turn his career around, aging gracefully from manic hilarity to gray-haired, dignified, and funny. (If only Steve Martin could have learned to do the same.) Murray's recent characters are older, crankier, less funny, more restrained, and more conscious of their age. Wes Anderson's Rushmore was the first appearance of the new Murray; he played a variation on the same theme in Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Lost in Translation, and Broken Flowers. By the last movie on the list, it was hard to distinguish Murray's inert, introspective presence from the meticulously dressed backgrounds; he had stripped so much affect from his acting that there was practically nothing left, except the memory of who Bill Murray used to be. Murray's new restraint worked because he was acting consciously against type, against the audience's memories of his hysterical performances in films like Caddyshack and Ghostbusters. Carell appears to have taken a page from Murray's book without ever having had the first part of Murray's career, playing romantic shellshock on an empty canvas.
So I think Steve Carell may need an intervention, or at least his seriously depressed characters do, before he accepts a script for a suicidal main character who actually succeeds. After all, he's good enough, he's funny enough, and doggone it, people laugh at him, especially on the small screen. He's one of the bigger stars in Hollywood right now, and he ought to be able to use his fame, along with his prodigious talent, to expand his range. (I gave the same advice to Sarah Silverman and Wes Anderson, other major talents stuck in a conceptual rut in early middle age.)
Maybe all isn't lost. His next big project, 2008's Get Smart, based on Buck Henry and Mel Brooks's hilarious 1960's television show, has an impeccable pedigree and impressive cast, including Alan Arkin. If the movie lives up to the promise of the television show -- admittedly a tall order, considering it's by the guy who directed 50 First Dates -- Carell may yet be able to salvage a promising comedic career from the depths of a long succession of emotionally stunted leads in increasingly mopier comedy-dramas. But if it flops like Evan Almighty, his career may remain as monochromatic as his characters' love lives. And in real life, there's no dance sequence.