Saturday, August 20, 2011

Steve Carell at the crossroads: Brand or actor?

Ten years ago, Steve Carell was an adroit actor/comedian emerging on The Daily Show, albeit without such a set persona as Rob Corddry or Steven Colbert. Then, with the double-whammy of The Office and 40-Year-Old-Virgin, Carell's name became a household word. But Carell still had the power to decide what that household word would mean.

Many, probably most, comedians become brands. Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, Bob Newhart -- we know what we are in for when we walk in. (Peter Sellers is perhaps the only brand known for its unpredictability; however, we should note that his superstardom is owed to the rather narrow character of Inspector Clouseau.] But recent performers have straddled the divide between brand and ac. Perhaps Bill Murray was the first; certainly Will Ferrell is working both sides of the street, especially since it appears that his brand (the overgrown adolescent) may not be sustainable as he ages. (This is what happened to Jerry Lewis.) Jim Carrey is attempting to negotiate the transition, but it has been rough for him.

Carell's brand, which is what he relied on in that bit of commercial fluff, Date Night, is a quiet, decent everyman who wanders across a range from narcissism to self-deprecation, but hovers over the reasonable center. If he's going to do something crazy, it's because he has been pushed to it, whereas a Jim Carrey-branded character starts at stark raving bonkers and amps it up from there. Crazy, Stupid, Love. cements that trend and rests a lot of its ambition on the skill and warmth of Carell's acting, as seen here, partnered with the impeccable Julianne Moore.

This is worlds away from the disconnected and perhaps insane weatherman Carell played in Anchorman, one of the films that helped build his reputation. But more surprising, having made the step up to feature film leading man, is that the crazy, spontaneous improv comic is still lurking around, albeit literally disguised.

Ordinarily when animators hire famous actors to voice characters, they are trading on the recognizability of the voice being engaged. (Before the modern era, voice experts rendered their own versions of voice types. Paul Frees or Daws Butler had their own version of Ed Wynn, Charles Butterworth, Lou Costello or even Phil Silvers. June Foray has a devastating Marjorie Main. Sometime in the 1980s, it became evident that real movie stars, many of whom grew up on animation, were willing to become, nay enthusiastic to serve as animation voice talent. Imitators were no longer necessary, except for dead personalities, e.g. Maurice LaMarche's great gloss on Orson Welles.) So when Despicable Me (2010) was announced to star Steve Carell, it was not to be expected what a transformative performance he would give.

One good sign -- the character designs bore no resemblance to the actors providing their voices, clearly signaling the animators' disinclination to trade on the actors' celebrity personas, including those of Russell Brand, Jason Segal, and most especially Julia Andrews, none of whom are cast in ways they would be in a live-action film.

It is rather heartening to hear Mr. Carell hold onto his inner Peter Sellers. There are comics around who still trade on their versatility -- Hank Azaria and Christopher Guest come to mind. But such performers are rarely stars. So here's hoping that while Steve Carell solidifies his brand, he hangs on to the versatility and range which were so important on the way up.

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