When you hear the phrase "suicidal Proust expert," comedy isn't necessarily the first thing that comes to mind.
It helps that Frank, one part of the dysfunctional family tree at the center of "Little Miss Sunshine," is played by Steve Carell. The movie was shot before Carell became a full-fledged movie star thanks to "The 40 Year-Old Virgin" and before "The Office" made him one of television's most acclaimed leading men.
"I have said before that I was just hoping to work as an actor," Carell notes. "So, this last year has been surreal. And I am always the type of person who is waiting for the other shoe to drop and for it to peter out and end. And if it does that's fine, I've kind of prepared for it myself in some ways, because I feel it's safer to do that. As soon as I start buying into it, and saying, 'Well, here we go. Its gonna be all gravy from here on out,' that's when you go off the cliff in my mind. So, I enjoy it and it's great and it's exciting, but I also don't' expect it to continue like this. It's self-preservation -- to guard against inflating it in my mind."
It's no wonder, then, that Carell had no trouble drawing on a well of melancholy to play Uncle Frank, the aforementioned Proust scholar who decides to end his life after his lover leaves him for a rival academic. When it's suggested that as a comic, he may have experienced rejection and dejection every so often, Carell chuckles and immediately cuts in.
"Every so often? How about 20 years of it?" he says. "But, it's also you can become kind of numb from the rejection as well. And I think that's something that happens with actors quite often is that you just start to expect it and anticipate it. So, in terms of this I just thought about the personal rejections I've encountered in my life and the disappointments. Everyone has had those moments where you just feel hopeless and self pitying and sorrowful and you feel like there really is no light at the end of the tunnel."
As Carell plays the part, though, Frank may be depressed, but he's never depressing. The "Daily Show" alum brings a dead-pan spark to every line of dialogue and draws laughter from every withering glance.
"I don't think you are laughing at these people. I think you are laughing in consideration of them," Carell insists. "And in a sense what I enjoy doing in the movie and why I enjoyed being a part of it was that I think the acting was fairly real and fairly organic and I think it's funnier because of that. When you get a sense that these are living characters and not these overly created situations. You start to care and be involved. I think they always say, 'Comedy is tragedy plus time.' Which is sort of true. Maybe comedy is tragedy without that much time."
Carell will be concentrating more on the comedy than the tragedy in his upcoming projects. His long anticipated big screen version of "Get Smart" is expected to finally shoot next spring and he's already completed work on "Evan Almighty," a "Bruce Almighty" sequel that he promises will be even more mainstream than the audience pleasing "Little Miss Sunshine."
"It's a very different animal," he says. 'Evan Almighty' is such a different movie tonally. 'Evan Almighty' will be a very broad comedy that casts a large net. It will be PG. It will be very inoffensive and very sweet. And it will definitely try to appeal to more of a family audience."
"Little Miss Sunshine" is already in limited release and will go wider with each passing week. Check your local listings.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times