Steve Carell doesn't have a face for the movies. It's too plain, too pale, like a weatherman from New Jersey, which is how he landed a supporting role in Anchorman. His features don't carry the comical devilishness of Jim Carrey, or even the mischievousness of an Adam Sandler or Will Smith. If you were to run into him on a street corner, oblivious to his fame, you wouldn't turn back for a second. He's too ordinary to make a lasting impression.
All of this might work to his favor on the small screen, where he plays the clueless boss Michael Scott on The Office. It should backfire on the big screen, where everything is epic now, and so 3-D. But comedy isn't a branch of mathematics—the formula actually works in reverse. The Office might have the critical backing and the Emmys, but it's a dwindling import that nobody will talk about in 10 years (do they still even talk about it now?). It's on the big screen that Carell has made his mark, from The 40-Year-Old Virgin to Get Smart. Which brings us to the latest example, Date Night.
The premise is like Charlie's Angels without the angels: a New Jersey husband (Carell) and wife (Tina Fey) go out for a peaceful dinner in Manhattan, are somehow mistaken for a couple blackmailing a corrupt district attorney, and spend the rest of the night on the run. If the stars had been—for example—Jennifer Aniston and Gerard Butler, it wouldn't be worth catching even on TBS. But Carell is such the unusual film actor (he got his start on The Daily Show, after all) that he can make even the most mundane line pop. He's also unmatched when it comes to physical comedy—i.e., the chest waxing in the 40-Year-Old Virgin. Paired with Tina Fey (a writer who also played a fake anchor on Saturday Night Live), the movie easily succeeds as mainstream popcorn entertainment.
Has there been any other comedian at the movies who continuously takes a tired premise and makes it so delicious, your gut hurts? (Or maybe it hurts from all the laughing.) Because Carell has such a gentle onscreen presence, he brings out the best in his female leads. Who knew that Anne Hathaway had action-babe potential before Get Smart? Or that Catherine Keener could be so Julia Roberts–lovable in Virgin? He also transformed the normally dramatic Juliette Binoche in Dan in Real Life, a better romantic comedy than anything Hugh Grant has done in the last 10 years. In Date Night, Carell is the cake batter that holds up Fey's icing. Their breezy banter is a throwback to old-fashioned movie stars, which is funny, since she's not a conventional movie star either. When she cast herself opposite longtime friend Amy Poehler in Baby Mama, it was like watching an endless SNL skit.
Carell might not get the onscreen recognition that he deserves—yet—but give him time. Like Ben Stiller, he's a thinking man's comic, with the potential for crossing over into drama. Stiller is now getting rave reviews for his performance as a tortured man-boy in the Noah Baumbach film Greenberg. But it doesn't seem so great when you compare it to what Steve Carell accomplished in Little Miss Sunshine. When Carell's character appears at the start of the movie, with bandages around his wrists from an apparent suicide attempt, his eyes are full of sorrow in a way that almost makes you take a step back. Who knew that Steve Carell had such range? If he ever takes on Hamlet, sign me up for a front-row seat.