Steve Carell Takes Tom Hanks' Place as Leading Man

Steve Carrell. Brendan Hoffman / Getty Images

It was once easier to make a career out of playing nice guys. But when the Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts vehicle Larry Crowne face-planted at the box office this month, grossing just $15 million in its first weekend, critics posited that it’s increasingly difficult to buy Hanks, the prototypical Nice Guy, as a romantic lead—setting off the race for someone else to take his crown.

Enter Steve Carell, who’s shedding his self-deluded stereotype from The Office to carve out a career as a bankable leading man. In Crazy, Stupid, Love (out July 29), he takes a classic Tom Hanks-ian role and makes it just slightly dangerous. Carell infuses his comedy with a subtle, sad-eyed melancholy, while he brings a note of lightness and optimism to his darker roles. Says Crazy, Stupid, Love codirector John Requa, “Steve is in that Tom Hanks, Jimmy Stewart, Jack Lemmon category. He seems to invite sympathy, so you’re always on his side.”

Carell begins as an uninspiring character, Cal, the kind of guy who’s been married so long he doesn’t even realize he’s stopped listening to his wife (Julianne Moore) years ago. In dorky white tennis shoes and baggy mom jeans, he is completely unprepared to be thrown back into the dating pool when his wife announces she wants a divorce. Devastated, Cal pairs up with Jacob (Ryan Gosling), a sharp-suited lothario who goes through women like disposable razors. Jacob sizes up the prospects for his newly single buddy, concluding, “You’ve got a kind face. You’ve got a good head of hair. You seem like a nice guy.”

This is where things get darker. Cal enjoys a series of one-night stands, screws up opportunities to reconcile with his wife, and jeopardizes his relationship with his son. He is still sympathetic, but not entirely likable. It’s a role that is harder than it looks: a man with enough demons to be interesting, but enough essential decency that the audience never stops rooting for him to slay those demons.

His television fans may doubt Carell has the gravitas to play, say, a lawyer dying of AIDS, as Hanks did in Philadelphia. But Carell ably depicted a suicidal brother in Little Miss Sunshine, a melancholic widower in Dan in Real Life, and even the sex-allergic salesman in The 40-Year-Old Virgin.

As Crazy, Stupid, Love codirector Glenn Ficarra says, keeping both the comedy and drama grounded in reality is “a tap-dancing act, and Steve does it effortlessly.” As long as he digs deeper, Carell looks able to dance in Hanks’s shoes for a while to come.