I hate to start on such a bummer note, but I was watching Space Force last night.
It goes without saying that Netflix’s new algorithmically-conceived broad comedy from Office showrunner Greg Daniels is bafflingly dull and lacks any jokes more inventive than its star, Steve Carell, singing “Kokomo” by The Beach Boys while making a funny face. It was such a grim window into a stage of Carell’s career where he seems truly at a loss for what to appear in, and what people want to see him do, that it reminded me of another TV comedy you may have forgotten ever existed: CBS’s 2013 single-season failure The Crazy Ones, starring another flexible star of big and small-screen comedies: one Robin Williams.
Based at a prestigious advertising firm, The Crazy Ones was a desperate attempt to bring Williams back to television at the last moment before the streaming boom normalised the idea of movie stars making short form content. Sarah Michelle Gellar played Williams’ daughter, and if I recall correctly Hamish Linklater was the charming office lank. It wasn’t funny, and it was cancelled after one season. Williams had signed onto The Crazy Ones after a string of escalating cinematic failures that plateaued around the time of License to Wed and Old Dogs.
I stopped to consider, as one does when watching Space Force, the numerous parallels between Carell’s and Williams’ career trajectories, and through analysing the various stages at which they made the right — and wrong — turns, I’m hoping to figure out what Carell should do next. For unlike Williams, who of course tragically died in 2014, Carell has an opportunity to bounce back better than ever and pave for himself an exciting third act of his career. You might be surprised to learn, given that Carell didn’t become a public name until around 2005 — decades after Williams broke out — that Carell is now only six years younger than Williams was when he died. So hear me out, because they’re more similar than you imagine…
Williams popped up in two episodes of Happy Days and was rapidly spun off in sitcom Mork and Mindy as a friendly alien boyfriend. When conceived for Happy Days, Mork was intended as a pastiche of My Favourite Martian — which, as it happens, was later rebooted as a Disney film starring Jeff Daniels and Christopher Lloyd. Williams perfected his manic talkative persona on Mork and audiences were familiar enough with his mannerisms by the time it ended in 1982 that has catapulted instantly into a movie career.
Carell gained visibility via a presence on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, but it was the double-whammy of Anchorman and Bruce Almighty in which he plays roughly two versions of the same character led to being cast as the Ricky Gervais counterpart on the US remake of The Office. Though never a big US Office fan myself, Michael Scott’s frantic bureaucratising has permeated even my end of the cultural sphere to no end, and remains the subject of GIFs circulated on a daily basis. Given that Scott is actually one of Carell’s less animated comedic creations, it’s perhaps odd that it’s the role he’s best known for.
The same year The Office premiered, Carell’s face was absolutely everywhere as the titular loser in Judd Apatow’s The 40 Year Old Virgin. I can literally remember the first time I saw his face on a massive poster in Galway and, being seven years old, having no idea what a virgin was or why a forty year old one would be an interesting subject for a film. It’s the two roles he takes straight after this that really demonstrate the sort of work he’s planning on taking for the foreseeable future. He plays the hyperactive squirrel in DreamWorks’ Over The Hedge and was heavily featured in the kids media of the day as that film’s most child-friendly star (what kid in 2006 knew who Gary Shandling or Wanda Sykes were?), and in Little Miss Sunshine — the template for every tiresome Oscar-bait dramedy posing as indie farce you’ve had to endure since — he’s relatively well cast as Toni Collette’s gay brother who has just survived a suicide attempt. Carell has to compete for oxygen with Alan Arkin and Paul Dano throughout that film, but he’s the one person who seems to at least be trying something deeper than archetype. I find that film really hard to swallow, but I saw it fairly young and Carell stood out to me.
Williams’ second film role, after Altman’s Popeye, was in The World According To Garp, a film similarly dealing with family, sex, and LGBT issues, although through a distinctively more 1980s lens than Little Miss Sunshine. It was the perfect role for Williams to take to add some flavour to how we was perceived by audiences after the more-or-less one-note roles of Mork and Popeye.
Carell and Williams both gave themselves space to expand their screen personas, and the variety of roles being offered to them.
Carell and Williams proved themselves capable as leading men in mid-budget movies, and plenty of them, but when stitched into more expensive tentpoles the certainty of their appeal became a little more suspect.
Williams had a relative success with Spielberg’s Hook in 1991, playing Peter Pan opposite Dustin Hoffman’s eponymous pirate, but a year later serious doubt was cast by the absolute failure of Barry Levinson’s Rain Man follow up, colourful but morose fantasy Toys. The trailer for Toys is surreal: Williams addressing the audience out of character, describing the film, without showing a single second of footage. It didn’t work. Toys lost a lot of money. Fortunately, he got a lot of goodwill back with Jumanji three years later.
Carell could seemingly do no wrong after The 40 Year Old Virgin and (perhaps prematurely given that he was still on an NBC sitcom every Thursday night) was signed onto a few really expensive movies. Evan Almighty saw his character from Bruce Almighty spun off into a modern day Noah’s Arc adventure; proudly marketed as the first ‘Green Movie’, with a carbon neutral offset on the set. It cost almost $200m — yes, a Steve Carell comedy, cost almost $200m. It barely made that back. A year later (after a brief dalliance into Horton Hears A Who), Carell found more success with Peter Segal’s Get Smart reboot for Warner Bros. Ignoring the age gap between Carell and co-star Anne Hathaway, Get Smart is a pretty solid movie and the sort of studio action comedy I wish they’d make more of. It earned $230m on a budget of 80; clearly a stronger gamble and more appropriate use of Carell’s star power than Evan Almighty.
After the success of Mrs. Doubtfire, 90s and 00s Robin Williams fell into something of a pattern of pretty unmemorable high concept comedies. I can rattle off a bunch: Jack, Patch Adams, Flubber, RV, License to Wed, Old Dogs. No living person has ever watched any of these films more than once, apart from my great aunt who once told me Patch Adams is her favourite film. Occasionally there’ll be something a bit more interesting, like The Fisher King.
Now in Carell’s case these movies came fast and didn’t stop for almost a decade: Date Night, Crazy Stupid Love, Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World, Hope Springs, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone: I have no major objections to any of these perfectly decent films, but they start to blend together in our collective memory of what Carell has done. The closest he’s come to Fisher King, I would argue, is Jay Roach’s pretty charming Dinner for Schmucks.
Carell obviously had a relationship with animated comedies from the start, with roles in Over the Hedge and Horton, but the role that’s probably made him the most money — apart from Michael Scott — arrived in 2010 with the first Despicable Me. Gru is barely an iconic character, but Carell’s highly amusing choice of voice (probably one of the best choices since Mike Myers made Shrek a Scotsman) was a crucial element to selling that first film, which led to the absolute global dominance of the Minions brand. And whether Gru is the most beloved character or not, Carell is the one who gets top billing (and the subsequent payouts) from those movies.
Williams’ success in the animation world barely needs explaining: his Genie in Disney’s Aladdin is a piece of casting so iconic it’s taken the studio decades to calm down from how smart a decision they made. He would later pop up in Robots and George Miller’s Happy Feets: films in which he is not needed, but helped to market.
Williams remained constantly in touch with his dramatic abilities even as he was taking over the comedy world. Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting — for which he won an Oscar — can both be compared to Carell’s recent melodramatic attempt Beautiful Boy. More compelling, however, is the string of films in which these warm everymen decided to play actual psychopaths. Williams’ 2002 was something to behold: Mark Romanek’s One Hour Photo, Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia, and Danny DeVito’s Death to Smoochy. In all three he plays various degrees of unhinged, dangerous and out for blood. Most interestingly, in both Insomnia and Smoochy he takes a back seat to Al Pacino and Edward Norton, respectively, as a mischievous wildcard in the shadows.
Carell made a similar leap, back in the direction of his Little Miss Sunshine days, with 2014’s wrestling-murder drama Foxcatcher, in which he dons a fake nose and gets really, really creepy as Jon DuPont. Guess what? Oscar nomination. His first. Unsurprisingly he stuck around, and showed up in Adam McKay’s The Big Short the following awards season, as well as a film called Freeheld about gay rights that I don’t even remember being released this side of the Atlantic. In 2017 he tried eagerly to get another nomination with the double whammy of Battle of the Sexes (very boring) and Last Flag Flying (very misjudged). Then in 2018, the aforementioned Beautiful Boy plus a silly cameo in Vice and… my bête noire… the truly evil Welcome to Marwen. To compare the villainy of Robert Zemeckis’ horrible, horrible film to Smoochy would be an insult to Robin Williams and Danny DeVito, for they could never conjure something so criminally monstrous. Click here if you want to know why I despise that film so dearly. Needless to say it soured my attitude to Steve Carell quite significantly.
In fact, it’s safe to say it soured the world’s attitude to Carell, and back he went to TV last winter with Apple’s The Morning Show. The only thing more surprising than Carell taking a supporting role in the Reese Witherspoon/Jennifer Aniston vehicle is that he’s actually really good in it. His character, a Matt Lauer-esque news anchor accused of sexual misconduct, is questionable presented at times with a cloud of presumed innocence placed above his head by the show. But towards the end of the season, when we’re shown exactly what did happen between him and a young woman working in the newsroom, Carell really shines as he leapfrogs out of the moral grey area and into the category of full-on abusive criminal. So unfortunate, then, to have Space Force come along and remind me that Carell is capable of having his ability truly wasted when nobody involved is really trying their best. It reminds me so much of The Crazy Ones that I can hardly stand it. You wonder what terrific roles Williams would have found in the world of streaming television; it’s truly heartbreaking he missed out on an era of material that would have suited his skill-set so well.
Around the same time as that show, however, he made a really fabulous little film called Boulevard, which is one of my favourite roles of his. He plays a bank clerk who pursues an affair with a young male prostitute, and he demonstrates extraordinary pathos, more so I would argue than in some of his more iconic dramatic roles. I’d recommend checking it out, but I’d also encourage our friend Steve Carell to keep an eye out for his Boulevard, and whatever good stuff comes after that. Robin never got the chance to find out; or even to witness the positive reception for that film; but Steve does, and he should grab onto it and be someone interesting for the next ten years. I truly think he has it in him.