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It's high time Hollywood's everyman Steve Carell gets the recognition he deserves


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Tale of small-town values: Steve Carell in his new movie, Irresistible

Tale of small-town values: Steve Carell in his new movie, Irresistible

Comedy role: Carell as Brick Tamland in Anchorman

Comedy role: Carell as Brick Tamland in Anchorman

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Tale of small-town values: Steve Carell in his new movie, Irresistible

Steve Carell is everywhere at the minute. He gave us a wonderfully complex portrayal of a jovial sex predator in Apple TV's very watchable Morning Show, plays a buffoonish general in Netflix's rather dodgy new comedy Space Force, and takes on Trump's America in Irresistible, a comic movie that was stream-released yesterday.

Irresistible is the brainchild of former The Daily Show host Jon Stewart, with whom Carell has a long association, and uses a small town mayoral election as the platform for a polite assault on the venality of US politics.

Carell, whose quiet versatility is nothing short of astonishing, plays Gary Zimmer, a renowned Democratic Party political strategist who is still licking his wounds after the devastation of Hillary Clinton's presidential election defeat when he notices a YouTube video of a Wisconsin farmer giving an impassioned speech. In line with White House diktats, the incumbent mayor of Deerlaken has announced a new campaign to chase down undocumented workers. In response, a former Marine colonel called Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper) gives a rousing speech about compassion, fairness and true American ideals.

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Comedy role: Carell as Brick Tamland in Anchorman

Comedy role: Carell as Brick Tamland in Anchorman

Comedy role: Carell as Brick Tamland in Anchorman

Gary is intrigued, and decides that Deerlaken's forthcoming mayoral election might be just the event to cause an upset and loosen Trump's stranglehold on the rural Midwest. So he roars into town to persuade the shy and retiring Hastings to stand as a candidate. Meanwhile, the Republicans have sent their own cold-blooded strategist (Rose Byrne) to make sure their guy prevails. Both these spin-doctors are egregiously unconnected with the real world, and Carell's character is about to receive a bracing dose of education.

In Irresistible, we're given the old story of DC cynicism versus wholesome small-town values that Hollywood has been trotting out since the days of Frank Capra and Preston Sturges. But the film makes pertinent points, and it goes without saying that Carell is entirely convincing as the arrogant and calculating Washington insider.

It goes without saying because Carell is utterly convincing in everything. Though he made his name in comedy, he has in the past six years emerged as one of the great unsung dramatic actors of his time. There were hints of hidden depths from the start, but the film that shocked everyone into realising Carell was a heavyweight actor was Foxcatcher (2014), in which he played a dead-eyed, sociopathic multimillionaire whose obsession with the US Olympic wrestling team ends in tragedy.

A raft of ever-more impressive dramatic performances have followed in films such as The Big Short, Battle of the Sexes, Beautiful Boy and Vice: Carell got a best actor Oscar nomination for Foxcatcher, and really should have won. But that is rather beside the point: because when you try to think of anyone else capable of starring in films like this as well as The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Anchorman, the list is very short.

Comedy, though, was Carell's bread and butter for many years, and he has never quite given up on it. Born in Concord, Massachusetts on August 16, 1962 and raised in nearby Acton, Steven John Carell was the youngest of four brothers and has Polish and Italian heritage - his family name was originally the far more poetic-sounding Carosselli. "I think it's beautiful," he told The Guardian some years back, "and it certainly wouldn't be mispronounced and misspelled as much as Carell has over the years."

He was more interested in sport than the stage at school, but while studying history at Denison University, Ohio, in the early 1980s, he joined an improvisational comedy group. After graduating, he moved to Chicago and worked with the acclaimed Second City comedy troupe, performing alongside his future friend and collaborator Stephen Colbert. Steve had a natural flair for playing the smooth but subversive straight-man, and did so hilariously during a six-year stint as a cheesy reporter on Jon Stewart's The Daily Show.

Mid-sized, vaguely handsome but otherwise unremarkable, Carell found it easy to burrow his way into these everyman comic roles.

Up to this point, he had dabbled unremarkably in film, but in 2004, two came along that nudged him gently towards the limelight. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy was one of the best comedies of the early 2000s, and starred Will Ferrell as a macho, sexist TV news anchorman who is about to get his comeuppance: Carell was very funny as Brick Tamland, an unstable and histrionic weatherman whose interpersonal skills leave much to be desired.

His first leading role came in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Judd Apatow's debut feature, which told the story of Andy Stitzer, a middle-aged man who lives alone and collects action figures. When his friends find out that Andy's terrified of intimacy and has never been with a woman, they decide to help him, with disastrous results.

Mid-sized, vaguely handsome but otherwise unremarkable, Carell found it easy to burrow his way into these everyman comic roles. He looked like a salesman, or a fussy middle manager, and indeed was about to play one in the acclaimed US adaptation of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's sitcom The Office. He would stay with that multi-award-winning show for six years, doing much to cement its enduring popularity.

A smooth career as an accomplished comic actor seemed to beckon, à la Paul Rudd for example, but his performance in the 2006 comedy Little Miss Sunshine suggested a desire to dig deeper.

Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris's delightful comic drama told the story of a little girl called Olive whose burning desire to take part in a beauty pageant is fulfilled with difficulty by her grandly dysfunctional family. Carell played Frank, Olive's gay uncle, whose status as America's second-most eminent Proust scholar has induced depression and suicidal thoughts. It was a very funny turn, but he also managed to catch his character's haunting melancholy, and make his pain believable.

Carell starred in lots of decent comedies in the Noughties, including Date Night, Dinner for Schmucks, Get Smart and the kids' animation Despicable Me, in which he brilliantly voiced the strutting Bond villain Gru. But Foxcatcher would radically change the way he was perceived in Hollywood. Choosing him to play a millionaire sociopath was an unlikely piece of casting, and Carell himself was surprised when the part was offered to him.

"I didn't think I'd get that call," he said. "It didn't seem that was going to be my trajectory. Though I have to tell you, when I read the script, I did think I could do it.

"I was afraid of it," he said, honestly, "but I think that having a little fear is a good thing. That means there's a challenge at hand and something to dig into."

Making Foxcatcher seems to have liberated him as an actor, and he has been bolder in his choices since.

There certainly was, and Carell's chilling portrayal of John E du Pont surprised everyone. Du Pont was an eccentric multimillionaire who used his money to establish an elite training facility on his estate and became the de facto boss of the US Olympic wrestling team. But his obsession with two wrestling brothers Mark and Dave Schultz (played in the film by Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum) leads to a power struggle, manipulation and ultimately murder.

Steve Carell, almost unrecognisable behind a monstrous prosthetic nose, portrayed du Pont as a pathetic character; shuffling, deluded, devious but indirect, a spiritually and morally vacuous megalomaniac. But his du Pont was no mere villain: at one point, when he waddles into the room, sniffing as he slyly assesses Mark Schultz's impressive bulk, he seems a pitiful loner. Eddie Redmayne was awarded the Oscar that year for his more crowd-pleasing turn as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, but Carell had good reason to feel aggrieved. Prior to that, even his edgiest roles had tended to be likeable, so playing the monstrous du Pont was an impressive career volte-face.

Making Foxcatcher seems to have liberated him as an actor, and he has been bolder in his choices since.

He dominated a castful of heavy hitters including Brad Pitt, Christian Bale and Ryan Gosling in Adam McKay's Big Short, a salty analysis of the 2008 global financial crash; gave the unreconstructed sexism of ageing tennis star Bobby Riggs an inexplicable charm in Battle of the Sexes; and was chillingly good as George W Bush's gibberish-spouting defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld in Vice.

Carell was at his minimalist best playing a father coping with son's drug addiction in Beautiful Boy. Though Robert Zemeckis's fact-based drama Welcome to Marwen was far from perfect, there was something heartbreaking about the way Carell caught the quiet despair of an artist who retreats deep into an imaginary world after enduring a homophobic assault.

It's an impressive parade of high-quality performances in a short space of time, and yet you feel with Steve Carell that the best is yet to come. And it is high time Hollywood's everyman was given the peer recognition he so richly deserves.

Indo Review