Steve Carell left “The Office” for the same reason most actors do: to concentrate on a film career.
In theory it should be a straightforward path: An actor, having both cut his teeth on a role and built a fan base, can devote the time to exploring all the avenues he couldn’t explore when he was shooting a few dozen episodes each year.
In reality, of course, it’s not an easy transition. Episodic television allows for, and rewards, the ability to develop a single persona over time. Michael Scott at his most blowhard-y can become Michael Scott the great sympathetic, moving one way and then another over a period of years. A rich feature career requires defining a set of traits quickly, then shifting abruptly for a new role, then doing it all over again.
Carell’s been no exception to this rule. The latest evidence is the magician-centric “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone,” which sputtered both with critics and audiences this weekend — it opened to barely $10 million — showing just how tough the switch can be.
But Carell’s recent movie roles haven’t all been disappointments, have they? In the spirit of March Madness, we decided to pit the actor’s most recent four movies -- the ones that came out after he left “The Office” in 2011 -- against the final four films released when he was still on the show. We looked at a mix of critical and commercial metrics, but also more intangible factors — such as: “Did we see him do something he’d never done before?” (No RPI, though.)
Herewith, are our eminently arguable findings.
The First Four:
“Date Night.” Love the gusto in tackling an adventure-comedy in the big bad city, like a young Elisabeth Shue. But Carell as uptight-straight man is a role we’ve seen many—including him--do better elsewhere. Grade: C+
“Dinner for Schmucks.” You have to give Carell credit for trying. It’s not everyone who can play a cluelessly outgoing nerd who makes mouse models. Or even tries. Trying is also something that could be said of this remake of a hit French farce, which came and went quickly. Grade: C+
“Dan In Real Life.” The Carell we hoped we’d get when we heard he was leaving “The Office.” In Peter Hedges’ underappreciated 2007 widower dramedy, Carell was subtle and touching, his low-key approach to comedy made more enjoyable by the chaos all around him. It wasn’t a great movie, but Carell was great in it. Grade: A
“Get Smart.” OK, so there are better remakes of classic comedies. And maybe Carell-Hathaway weren’t the best pairing to bring this one back. But if you saw it on a plane, at least you wouldn’t walk out. Grade: B-
The Final Four:
“Seeking a Friend at the End of the World.” It must have seemed like a good idea at the time: Take an end of-the-world sci-fi concept and make it about, you know, the people. What we ended up with, unfortunately, was some of the same cliched navel-gazing and oddball romance of a hundred other offbeat indie-ish films. And the movie called on few skills in Carell’s arsenal we hadn’t seen before, either. Grade: C-
“Hope Springs.” Having Meryl Streep in your movie can be a mixed blessing. It automatically gives your film a degree of credibility. But it also means everyone else has to up their game. Carell wasn’t bad as a therapist to a struggling couple. But he wasn’t hugely funny, nor was he a dramatic tour de force. Grade: B-
“The Incredible Burt Wonderstone:” We got to see the wild over-the-top Carell, and we got to see the humble sweet Carell. Unfortunately we didn’t get to see much in between. Nuance wasn’t the only thing lacking — so were the filmgoers. After a tepid weekend at the box office, the movie, and Carell’s performance in it, are on the road to being forgotten pretty quickly. Grade: C-
“Crazy, Stupid, Love.” The gem of the post-"Office” bunch: the most lucrative and also one of the best-regarded. His nice-guy didn’t go docile like “Friend at the End of the World,” but it didn’t go over-the-top Will Ferrell like “Burt Wonderstone.” He was aided by a persuasive Ryan Gosling performance, but still. Grade: A-
Which leaves us with:
Average “Office-"era score: B-
Average post-"Office” score: C+
So the overall averages are actually down in the time since he left the show. And they’d be down further if you compared them to pre-“Office” movies like “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.”
But there’s good news: Carell has two juicy parts coming up, a straight-up drama as John du Pont in the wrestling-murder tale “Foxcatcher,” and a surefire career-restarter as party-in-his-pants weatherman Brick Tamland, another doozy of a role he inaugurated pre-Michael Scott. It’s been a bit of a disappearing act, lately, but c’mon, Carell’s pulled rabbits out of hats before.
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