As the death march through movie-awards season begins in earnest this month, with the Toronto Film Festival now underway, it will be hard to miss the actor – once a staple of comedy and now the star of two heavy, high-profile and potentially prize-worthy films – over the coming months.
First up: “Beautiful Boy,” a true story starring Carell and Timothie Chalamet (“Call Me by Your Name”) as a father and son struggling with the younger man’s methamphetamine addiction. One of Toronto’s most anticipated offerings – based only on an April CinemaCon sneak peek of an emotional scene between Carell and Chalamet – the film left critics buzzing about the Oscar prospects of its two stars (along with director Felix Van Groeningen and screenwriter Luke Davies). The film is scheduled for an Oct. 12 commercial release.
Then, in December, Carell anchors “Welcome to Marwen,” in which he does double duty. Using a mix of live-action and motion-capture performance, director Robert Zemeckis’s fact-based film features the actor as both traumatized beating victim Mark Hogancamp – the subject of the 2010 documentary “Marwencol” – and Hogancamp’s alter ego, a G.I. doll. The doll appears in animated World War II fantasy sequences set in a miniature Belgian village that Hogancamp built as a form of art therapy. A third movie – as yet without a firm release date – features Carell in a supporting role as Donald Rumsfeld. That still-untitled biopic, based on the career of former vice president Dick Cheney (Christian Bale), reunites the two actors with their director from “The Big Short,” Adam McKay.
With Carell’s startling metamorphosis in 2014’s “Foxcatcher,” the funnyman began a journey away from a reputation carefully honed on “The Daily Show” and in such hit movies as “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.” The Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday called his creepy, Oscar-nominated performance, as convicted murderer John DuPont, a “breakthrough.”
The New York Times wrote: “Mr. Carell’s physical transformation is perverse, hypnotic and a touch distracting, and you may find yourself searching for the familiar face behind the pasty skin and large prosthetic nose that juts from John’s face like a cruel joke. Little by little, with long stares, an old man’s shuffle and strange phrasing, Mr. Carell transforms the character from a figure of ridicule into something truly grotesque.”
That transformation seemed to announce to the world: Stop laughing and take me seriously.
In 2010, when Carell announced his early departure from the Emmy-winning TV series “The Office,” after seven seasons of playing the buffoonish manager of a paper company, the actor insisted that he just wanted to spend more time with his family. In hindsight, it is hard to imagine that the dramatic realignment of his career was not planned, although Carell himself denied that, in a 2015 interview with me, when “The Big Short” came out.
Defying people’s expectations of him as a comedian “wasn’t something I did on purpose,” he said. “You never know if it’s going to work or if people are going to buy it.”
More recently, Carell has had major roles in last year’s “Battle of the Sexes” – as aging tennis player Bobby Riggs (very well received) – and “Last Flag Flying” – as a grieving father who has lost his son in Iraq (not so well received). He also reprised his role as the cartoon supervillain Dru in “Despicable Me 3.”
Carell – still part clown, now part tragedian – may or may not be telling the truth when he says there was no conscious decision to rebrand himself. But one thing is increasingly clear: Whatever he’s selling these days, a whole lot of us are buying.