Steve Carell’s transformation from comic patsy to brooding menace in wrestling psychodrama Foxcatcher, now out on DVD, has won the actor many plaudits, including an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Mark Reynolds explores the actor’s wildly varied repertoire.

Ostensibly a career-defining switch, his portrayal of twisted, self-styled fight guru John Eleuthère du Pont drives home the point that, as the likes of Peter Sellers, Robin Williams and Charlie Chaplin have previously shown, to be a successful comic actor you have to bring much more to the table than merely playing the clown. A brief survey of Carell’s back catalogue affirms that, however far-fetched the character he portrays, his performances are invariably grounded in psychological understanding and humanity, echoing Horace Walpole’s line that the world is “a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel.” Here are some of his best bits.

 

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)

Carell’s hilarious portrayal of intellectually challenged weatherman Brick Tamland is an undoubted highlight of the Will Farrell and Adam McKay-scripted spoof of 1970s Action News broadcasting, and effectively served as a calling-card for Carell’s prosperous career in character comedy. Producer Judd Apatow subsequently pitched him an idea for a film about a middle-aged virgin, and the two of them worked on a script together for what would become Carell’s first feature as a lead actor.

 

The Office (2005–2013)

Meanwhile, Carell was cast as Michael Scott, the David Brent character in the US remake of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s groundbreaking mockumentary series. Carell won a Golden Globe and received six Primetime Emmy Award nominations for the role, and wrote two widely praised episodes (Casino Night and Survivor Man, the former winning a Writers Guild of America Award). He left the show in 2011 due to film commitments, returning for a brief cameo in the 2013 series finale.
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The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005)

The first series of The Office had poor viewing figures but NBC renewed the show, taking a knowing punt on the inevitable success of Carell’s irresistibly-named feature. As uncomfortable in his own body as in anyone else’s, Carell’s Andy Stitzer is the unfortunate titular celibate, whose co-workers David (Paul Rudd), Cal (Seth Rogen), and Jay (Romany Malco) plot to see that his cherry is popped. Catherine Keener also stars as will they/won’t they? love interest Trish Piedmont, while Carell’s wife Nancy plays a sympathetic sexual health counsellor.
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Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

Carell tones down the goofiness in his sensitive portrayal of Frank Ginsberg, a Proust scholar coming off the back of a suicide attempt, who has temporarily moved in with his sister and brother-in-law’s extended family. Greg Kinnear, Toni Colette and Alan Arkin are the other bickering grown-ups who rally together on a road trip that will see Abigail Breslin’s seven-year-old Olive compete in a national beauty pageant. Although she is plain and a little pudgy compared to the other super-girly contestants, Olive and Grandpa Edwin (Arkin) have cooked up a song-and-dance number that kicks ass.
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Evan Almighty (2007)

Reprising his role as Evan Baxter from the Jim Carrey-starring Bruce Almighty (2003), Carell is a US Congressman who is tasked by God (Morgan Freeman) to build an ark in preparation for the coming great flood. His credible performance keeps a soggy script afloat, abetted by Lauren Graham, John Goodman, and a cast of thousands of real and computer-generated animals. It’s hardly a narrative of Biblical proportions, but engaging enough for whiling away a wet Sunday.
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Dan in Real Life (2007)

Carell stars as Dan Burns, a newspaper advice columnist with relationship issues, who juggles his career with single-parenting three precocious daughters. En route to a family gathering in Rhode Island, he falls for the charms of attractive stranger Marie Diamond (Juliet Binoche), who turns out to be the new girlfriend of his brother Mitch (Dane Cook). Carell is on firm ground as the lovable singleton hoping for a change in fortunes, while Binoche adds panache, charm and spry humour.
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Date Night (2010)

Carell and Tina Fey’s Phil and Claire Foster are a long-married New Jersey couple who opt for a blow-out dinner to put the excitement back into their weekly night away from the kids. Stealing the reservation and identity of a no-show couple at a fancy Manhattan restaurant, they hit trouble mid-meal when they are approached by two heavies demanding the return of a flash drive containing sensitive information. Deception, danger and madcap farce spill into a tangled web of crime, conspiracy and unwanted thrills.
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Despicable Me (2010)

Despicable Me

Carell voices criminal mastermind Felonious Gru, whose thunder is stolen when a rival villain makes off with the Great Pyramid of Giza, then comes up with an outrageous plan to shrink and steal the moon. Jason Segel is Gru’s nemesis ‘Vector’ Perkins, Russell Brand is Gru’s colleague and chief scientist Dr Nefario, and Miranda Cosgrove is Margo, the eldest of three orphan girls recruited to the evil cause. Winner of the ‘Favorite Animated Movie’ prize at Nickelodeon’s Kids Choice Awards, Carell must have been bummed to miss out in the ‘Favorite Buttkicker’ category to Jackie Chan’s Mr Han in The Karate Kid.
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Dinner for Schmucks (2010)

Dinner for Schmucks

This largely unnecessary reworking of Francis Veber’s Le Dîner de Cons again pairs Carell with Paul Rudd as financial exec Tim Conrad (Rudd) is tasked by his boss to bring the biggest idiot he can find to a mean-spirited dinner at which special guests will be mercilessly ridiculed. When he runs into (literally, in his car) Carell’s Barry Speck, a loner who collects and stuffs dead mice to pose them in elaborate tableaux, he seizes his chance to shine. Watch the French and American films together for an informative cultural aperitif.

 

Crazy Stupid Love (2011)

Carell’s Cal Weaver is shocked by wife Emily (Julianne Moore)’s revelation that she’s cheated on him with co-worker David Lindhagen (Kevin Bacon) and wants a divorce. He moves out to an apartment and starts hanging out at a nearby bar, where he befriends and takes tips from serial womaniser Jacob Palmer (Ryan Gosling). It’s never really in the balance whether Cal will ultimately choose a life of seduction or reconciliation, but with Schmucks still fresh in the mind, it’s tempting to speculate how a French remake might turn out.

 

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012)

Seeking a Friend

A giant asteroid is heading for Earth, and all life will be obliterated in the next 20 days. Many people panic and run for the hills or jump off a ledge, others indulge in fevered sex, booze and drug binges, but Carell’s insurance salesman Dodge Peterson, belatedly realising there’s no future in his line of work, decides to go on a road trip in the hope of being reunited with his first love. With Keira Knightley’s newly single neighbour Penny Lockhart in tow, luckily he’s carrying a spare.
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Hope Springs (2012)

Carell’s Dr Bernie Feld is marriage counsellor to Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones’ joyless empty nesters Kay and Arnold Soames. Hollywood rarely puts such giants together on screen to give them an unhappy ending, but the story of the strained marriage before the optimistic dénouement is delivered via deliciously awkward miscommunications (Dr Feld: What about oral sex? Kay: I wasn't... I wasn't comfortable with that. Dr Feld: Giving or receiving? Kay: Huh?).
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The Way, Way Back (2013)

The Way Back

This sweet comedy-drama sees Carell shine in a spirited ensemble cast featuring Toni Collette, Allison Janney, Sam Rockwell, Maya Rudolph, AnnaSophia Robb and Liam James as 14-yeqr-old Duncan, who is dragged to a beach house near Cape Cod by mum Pam (Colette) and her shifty new boyfriend Trent (Carell). As Pam goes out boozing with other grown-ups, Trent strikes up an affair with married holidaymaker Joan (Amanda Peet), while Duncan makes friends at the local waterpark and ponders the problems that await him at the end of summer.
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