Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is probably the most Steve Carell movie that Steve Carell has ever made. With someone else at the helm, this comedy-drama’s quirky/emo storyline—two mismatched East Coast neighbors take a road trip together as the planet is weeks away from destruction—might have been awfully cutesy. But Carell grounds everything in a modest, understated normalcy that makes you care deeply about what’s happening.
We’re used to our comic stars being larger-than-life personalities: Will Ferrell, Robin Williams, Jim Carrey. But Carell isn’t, at least not at his best. (Stare into this light and we’ll erase your memory of sitting through Dinner for Schmucks.) Where others huff and puff to get all the laughs, Carell is very happy to be the straight man. It’s not the normal path for a breakout star, but he’s used it to put together a more interesting and successful film career than most of his peers have.
For quite a while, Carell was a second banana: part of the ensemble on The Dana Carvey Show in the mid-’90s; a correspondent for The Daily Show—a great one, but without the aggressively pronounced persona of Mo Rocca or Carvey bud Stephen Colbert. When he started popping up in movies, like Bruce Almighty and Anchorman, he was backing up Carrey or Ferrell. Talented as he was, Carell seemed like a professional platoon player, not someone you’d pay money to see on his own.
All of that changed in the span of a few months in 2005. In March, the American redo of The Office premiered, and then in August, The 40-Year-Old Virgin came out. The Office took a little bit to find its footing, but The 40-Year-Old Virgin was one of those out-of-the-box successes that you watched and thought, “Oh, OK, this is what Carell can do really well.”
As the virginal Andy, Carell wasn’t focused on cracking one-lines or doing hysterical bits of physical comedy. He was just the nervous, sweet center of an R-rated sex comedy, at a time when those were starting to become incredibly popular and progressively more outrageous. He proved he could play off an established actress like Catherine Keener with ease, and he projected an inherent goodness. That decency kept The 40-Year-Old Virgin from feeling like an R-rated comedy; it was one raunchy Apatow movie you could almost imagine taking the whole family to.
Carell’s trick is that you don’t particularly notice him. His agreeable, forgettably handsome Everyman quality keeps him from pulling the focus away from the rest of the cast. Whether he’s in an ensemble movie like Little Miss Sunshine or being the principal star, as in Get Smart or Date Night*, he never seems to be reaching for the spotlight.
Maybe that’s why he never won an Emmy, despite all the nominations he got for The Office: His buttoned-down style lost out to actors in showier roles. Like Bob Newhart before him, Carell looks dull on the outside, but you know he’s thinking something funny. So rather than standing back and waiting for the hilarity to explode, you lean in.
Carell has also been smart enough to control the usual comic-star urge to prove he has dramatic range. There’s no Man on the Moon in his filmography. Instead, he’s chosen to do a lot of solid art-house/grownup-crowd films: Little Miss Sunshine; Dan in Real Life; Crazy, Stupid, Love. None of them are masterpieces—I kinda hate Crazy, Stupid, Love—but they’re not just filler to film while the star’s on break from his TV show. (It’s important to remember: During the time he was becoming a bigger and bigger film star, he was also doing The Office. This is incredibly difficult to achieve.)
Even more impressive, it’s work where he doesn’t sit around emoting to prove how serious an actor he is. Whether in a comedy or a drama, he projects that natural-seeming, amiable regular-guy quality.
Carell has made bad movies. Despicable Me and Evan Almighty are mediocre family-film stuff, and Dinner for Schmucks found him abandoning his easy manner for a failed gonzo shtick. Yet it doesn’t feel as if he’s making the crap as part of a scheme for world domination. He’s not pushy and needy in that way.
Just like the brokenhearted, lonely depressive he plays in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, Carell doesn’t make a fuss. Even his Twitter account is almost charmingly low-key and dorky. Apparently he didn’t get the memo that all funny people must be funny on Twitter every single moment of the day. It’s all the Carell mood: a refreshing equilibrium that makes all his projects just seem like Steve Carell movies. He’s the one comic you and your dad probably like equally. You’re both right.
*This sentence has been revised to reflect a correction.
Grierson Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.