Playing Noah for laughs, seriously

Spotlight

Spotlight on: Steve Carell

June 22, 2007|By John Anderson | John Anderson,Newsday

The original Noah had a job of what might be called biblical proportions - cubits this way, cubits that way, animal uprisings, cat dander. But at least he didn't have to follow Jim Carrey.

Steve Carell doth.

Evan Almighty, the Old Testament-derived comedy opening today and starring Carell as God's handmaiden, is director Tom Shadyac's quasi-sequel to his ridiculously successful Bruce Almighty, the 2003 Carrey-driven farce that became one of the most lucrative comedies ever (close to $500 million worldwide).

For Evan, Shaydac admits, he wanted Carrey. He got Carell. He should thank God, regardless of how God feels about being played by Morgan Freeman.

Even a cursory study suggests that the current movie scene can be parted, like the Red Sea, between the Knocked Ups of the world and the Evan Almightys. One is vulgar, rude, obnoxious and hilarious. The other is, well, something else. What they have in common is the 44-year-old Carell, who over the last half-decade has been establishing himself as Mr. Ubiquitous: The Daily Show. Anchorman. The 40 Year Old Virgin (which he co-wrote with Knocked Up's Judd Apatow). Over the Hedge. Little Miss Sunshine. And The Office. And, next year, Maxwell Smart in the big-screen version of NBC's Get Smart.

Meanwhile, seagulls are pooping on his nice blue suit.

"That's what they do," Carell says. He's recalling a scene in Evan during which his character is engulfed in feathers, which are still attached to birds. All the animals follow Evan around: They want him to take them on the boat that God's told him to build.

"Basically," he said, "all the animals that would not eat us were on set."

Carell's co-star, Wanda Sykes, said that if someone named God came up to her on the street and told her to build an ark, "I'd give him a dollar and keep it movin'."

Carell takes what seems to be a serious attitude about public reaction to a movie that takes the Lord's name in vain, profanes Holy Word and commits blasphemy with every frame.

The subject matter of Evan Almighty attracted more than the usual attention of faith-based press last week: It's junket day on the Universal lot in Burbank, and hungry nuns have been spotted at the buffet table. Carell laughs.

"I think, with this, we've been able to strike a balance between something that isn't offensive, and is kind, without seeming to be pandering or cloying or looking like we're shoving a message down anybody's throat. I don't know, I liked it. I was really proud of it when I saw it."

The title character, Evan Baxter, was a newscaster in Bruce Almighty and is a newscaster in Evan Almighty - before he becomes a congressman. In Evan, he acquires a rather persistent beard that makes him look like a person from the Old Testament or, as Sykes put it, "the guy from Fleetwood Mac."

Carell's grace under pressure - all the abuse and the birds and the ark-building, which Shadyac claimed Carell can actually do ("He's gilding the lily on that one," Carell said) - earned the admiration of his co-stars. "We sort of had more dramatic scenes together," said ex-Gilmore Girl Lauren Graham, who plays Carell's wife. "And he's a real actor. He worked from inside the character, small, subtle. He wasn't like, I'm doing something wacky and big!'"

"He works. He shows up. He's a real trouper," Sykes said. "And he cracked me up."

Carell, when all is said and done, is a reactive comedian - things happen to him, more often than not - and proved he could do drama in Little Miss Sunshine, which, despite all the comedy hype, was a pretty melancholy movie. He's also part of that Judd Apatow-Seth Rogen-Jonah Hill comedy mafia, which, right now, seems to be bending movie comedy to its own will.

"I think there's always different approaches and different takes," Carell says. "When I was growing up, we had things like Ghostbusters, and Bill Murray, the [Saturday Night Live]-based crowd, Harold Ramis writing and directing, and Mel Brooks was making things. People were coming at [comedy] from different angles and different frames of reference, and I think that continues today.

"Judd and I created Virgin, which had a specific idea and specific tone we were going for. Evan has a different tone, a different type of comedy, and I don't think it's necessarily different than it's ever been. There are just new people sort of evolving right now and it's exciting.

"I saw Knocked Up the other day, and it's so good, Seth was so good. And I was proud, y'know, proud for them, of them, and happy to be part of their world."

Meanwhile, Carell looks for projects he thinks will be good, not waiting necessarily, for the voice of God. Or Morgan Freeman.

"On the other hand, I just like to be employed, too," he said. "So I just keep working. I don't want to be too precious - `Oh well, I really want to do a draaama, something to stretch me as an actor.' I just want something that's good."

"King Lear, perhaps.

"Yeah," he says, "or Othello."

John Anderson writes for Newsday.

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