The evolution of a celebrated funny man to an acclaimed dramatic actor
The term Renaissance Man technically means someone who is very good at many things. Taken literally, the word “renaissance” in French means rebirth - so a man who is reborn, or reinvented. After Steve Carell’s latest turn in FX’s drama miniseries The Patient (available to stream in full on Hulu after its season finale on Tuesday, October 25), it seems clear to me that either definition applies to him. Or both.
In The Patient, Carell plays Dr. Alan Strauss, a therapist who is taken hostage by his patient Sam (Domhnall Gleeson, in a wonderful performance walking the line between bizarrely deadpan and frightening rage), a serial killer who desperately wants to stop killing people and wants to receive treatment to curb his murderous urges. Knowing that if he discloses that he literally kills people in session with Alan in his office Alan will be legally obligated to report him, Sam drugs Alan and chains him to a post in the basement of his mother’s house, where he lives, so that he can have 24/7 access to therapy in a way that ensures that he will not be apprehended by law enforcement. Despite this not at all resembling the way the therapeutic process works, Alan is forced to attempt to help Sam, knowing that if he doesn’t, he will likely become one of Sam’s victims, again to protect against being arrested and jailed. Along the way, Alan, given plenty of time to think while Sam goes to work in between forced therapy sessions, reflects on the recent passing of his wife Beth, who was the cantor at their family synagogue (where Reform or “Liberal” Judaism was practiced), and his strained relationship with his son Ezra, who converted to Orthodox Judaism and clashed with his family on what constituted the true practice of Judaism. He also, due to the stress of his situation in captivity (especially after Sam commits two more murders while Alan is working with him), begins to disassociate, leading to him having his own therapy “sessions” in his mind with his former therapist and mentor Charlie (played with lovely nuance by David Alan Grier), who helps him sort through various strategies for reaching Sam and also processing his grief about losing his wife and his anger at the way Ezra so callously rejected everything he and Beth believed in. He also begins to explore facets of his own relationship to Judaism while contemplating his potential death (perhaps unavoidable given the specter of the Holocaust).
The Patient is a slow burn, even in the earlier, shorter episodes (Episode 1 clocks in at a slim 21 minutes). I am reluctant to divulge Alan’s or Sam’s eventual fates, as this show is well worth watching, but I will say that Alan’s journey in captivity allows him to find a measure of peace both with his grief over Beth’s passing and in finding empathy towards Ezra’s choices instead of the rage he carried for so many years - mimicking his attempts at steering Sam towards developing a sense of empathy in order to stop murdering people he feels have wronged him – and it’s a beautiful journey to witness.
Steve Carell gives a very affecting performance as Alan Strauss, and while it is a bit problematic to cast him as a Jewish character given his lack-of-Jewishness (Carell was raised Roman Catholic), he manages to inhabit the role fully to a point where after a while I stopped noticing the anachronistic casting. He embodies Alan’s sensitive and gentle nature in a way that clearly shows what a talented therapist he is, and his scenes with David Alan Grier allow for a bit of gallows humor so we can see that Alan isn’t just a purely kind pushover. The moments especially when he comes to understand more fully the nature of his grief over losing his wife to cancer and his complicated grief over ”losing” Ezra to Orthodox Judaism are especially moving, and showcase just how gifted Carell has become in playing dramatic roles. I fully expect him to receive an Emmy nomination for The Patient next year.
And that’s the thing - that Carell might be, at this point, more known for his dramatic performances than for his comedic ones. It’s honestly not what I expected from him when I first became aware of him on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, where he frequently was paired with his old friend Stephen Colbert from the very short-lived Dana Carvey sketch series - which I wrote about for Story Screen some years ago - in a point-counterpoint segment called “Even Stephven” where they always ended up yelling unintelligibly at each other. Colbert and Carell also ended up voicing Ace and Gary, the heroes of Robert Smigel’s Ambiguously Gay Duo cartoon shorts on SNL in the late 90s/early aughts. It’s certainly not what I expected from a man whose breakout film role was the eponymous 40 Year Old Virgin. And it’s a huge surprise after six seasons of playing the hapless Michael Scott, inept and frequent foot-in-mouth Manager of the Dunder-Mifflin Scranton branch in the American version of The Office (where he turned the uncomfortable yet quintessentially British cringe humor of Ricky Gervais’ portrayal of the equivalent character David Brent into someone with a bit more sweetness and humanity).
Post Daily Show, Carell’s first significant film role was as weatherman Brick Tamland in 2004’s
Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. Judd Apatow was so impressed by his performance that he approached Carell to work on a film together, which is what led to the blockbuster 40 Year Old Virgin in 2005, officially establishing him as a leading man. He moved on to play other comedic roles such as Uncle Arthur (a role originated by Paul Lynde) in the film adaptation of Bewitched, Maxwell Smart (a role originated by Don Adams) in the film adaptation of Get Smart, and the main character Gru in the Despicable Me franchise, among others. Along the way, he was cast and shot to television infamy as the aforementioned Michael Scott on The Office.
Carell’s first foray into less overt comedy was his role in 2006’s Little Miss Sunshine as Frank, Abigail Breslin’s gay suicidal uncle who the family invites into their home to care for. While overall Little Miss Sunshine is a comedy, the humor tends towards the dark, and Uncle Frank’s character arc in particular is imbued with deep sadness and was an indication that he might be capable of stretching beyond the broad bombastic humor of his onscreen performances to date.
After leaving The Office, Carell was cast in the true crime drama film Foxcatcher, also starring Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum - Carell played millionaire and eventually convicted murderer John Eluthere du Pont. This film is a very uncomfortable watch - mostly because Du Pont was a very strange man - and it’s tempting to laugh at Carell’s performance at first mostly because of the very large prosthetic nose he had to wear in order to portray Du Pont, and his awkward mannerisms and stilted speaking cadence.
Once you get past the obvious oddities, though, it’s clear that Carell was extremely comfortable handling himself in a dramatic role, and it garnered him an Oscar nomination.
Since then, he seems to have flipped very quickly and seamlessly into becoming a serious dramatic film actor, with roles in The Big Short and Battle of the Sexes. In 2018 he carried the film adaptation of journalist David Sheff’s memoir Beautiful Boy playing Sheff alongside Timothee Chalamet as his son Nic struggled with drug addiction, for which he received immense critical acclaim. This film is absolutely harrowing to watch, but the father-son chemistry between Chalamet and Carell is very believable, and Carell’s performance is heartbreaking. He subsequently played Donald Rumsfeld in Adam McCay’s political satire comedy-drama Vice about the life of Dick Cheney (played by Christian Bale). This film wasn’t as well received as Beautiful Boy but Carell again received praise for his performance.
Carell returned to television in 2019 to star on Apple TV’s drama The Morning Show with Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston, playing Mitch Kessler, a morning show news anchor who is fired due to a sexual misconduct accusation, for which he was nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series.
Which ends up looping me back to The Patient. Carell is 60 years old now (the mind boggles, especially when I revisit old clips of him in his early 30s on the Dana Carvey Show). His salt and pepper hair and beard and calm yet assertive speaking voice lend him a level of gravitas that was hard to fathom when watching him bumble around as Michael Scott, and given that The Patient is essentially a two-hander with him and Gleeson (and Grier, for the dissociation scenes), he is absolutely riveting to watch, holding his own with both actors (who are exceptional in their own distinctive ways, as his presence grounds every moment he is on screen. You can’t take your eyes off him.
There are moments in The Patient (and I noticed this in Beautiful Boy, too) when he raises his voice to shout and in my mind, I can hear echoes of him screaming at Stephen Colbert on The Daily Show or howling “KELLY CLARKSON!” in pain during the infamous chest-waxing scene in The 40 Year Old Virgin, and occasionally it will take me out of the moment and remind me that I’m watching Steve Carell, Noted Funny Man.
But these brief flashes of memory of his lighter fare aren’t bad, per se. As an Old Millennial, I basically grew up watching Steve Carell, and as I experience my own transformations as I age, I have nothing but admiration for Carell as an actor, to be able to be so fully versatile that he can disappear into a role like David Sheff or Alan Strauss and carry a dramatic film or show so capably after so many years as a comedian. The small reminders of how far he has come as a performer I get when I hear that familiar yelling timbre in his voice make me smile. Is it weird to say I’m proud of Steve Carell? Maybe it is, but no matter, I am proud of him and I can’t wait to see what he does next.
Reeya is a musician and writer based in NY's Capital District. Her debut album The Way Up was released on January 27, 2022. She can frequently be seen in her car on the NYS Thruway cursing traffic on her way to the Hudson Valley for band rehearsals or to Brooklyn for recording sessions. In her other life, she works as a staff accountant for a management company that oversees veterinary practices nationwide, enjoys watching Law & Order SVU returns while eating gummy bears, and has a film degree from Vassar College that she does not use.