Steve Carell Takes On Cancer Drama, Hopefully Focusing on Serious Roles

By  · Published on March 18th, 2014

Steve Carell Takes On Cancer Drama, Hopefully Focusing on Serious Roles

Columbia Pictures

Despicable Me 2 has earned close to $1 billion worldwide, and I’m guessing that means Steve Carell can do anything he wants, career-wise. Especially since Universal will want him back for the already announced third outing. So, even if his more serious endeavors don’t add up nearly as high as his animated or comedy work, if that’s what he prefers then that’s what he’s got the freedom to do. The Hollywood Reporter has his next dramatic role already picked out, with Carell set to produce and star in an adaptation of the new memoir The Priority List: A Teacher’s Final Quest to Discover Life’s Greatest Lessons. He’ll play its author, inspiring cancer-stricken school teacher David Menasche, who is going on eight years since being told he had only months to live.

The story goes that Menasche was diagnosed in 2006 with a lemon-size brain tumor. Let the realization of how big a lemon is sink in for a moment. In spite of his terminal sentence, surgery and chemotherapy kept him alive and even working for another six years until he suffered a seizure in 2012 that damaged his vision, memory and more. He left teaching and traveled the country on a mission he called his Vision Quest, reconnecting with former students in order to fill in things he was beginning to forget about what he meant to them. The plan was not to just write a book but also produce a documentary with footage he filmed along the way. It’s unclear if the doc will still happen – maybe it was canceled due to his not reaching his GoFundMe goal – or if it will need to if this dramatic take supersedes it.

If there’s room for both, then this might be the first movie where Carell is signed on to play a real person before the doc version exists. As recently revisited in a piece at Nonfics, two already existing docs with dramatized remakes on the way have Carell attached. One is [email protected] and the other is Of All Things, in which he’d play singer-songwriter Dennis Lambert. The resemblance for the latter was a stretch, but now it’s nothing compared to Carell’s looks against Menasche’s shaved-head, heavily tattooed appearance. A young Joe Pesci might be more appropriate. Or comedian Jim Norton. Why not? A decade ago it might have seemed ridiculous to us that the guy who, outside of The Daily Show, we only knew for silly movie stints in Bruce Almighty and Anchorman would be right for a cancer drama.

Now it’s the best thing I can see him doing. He’s a funny man, for sure, but when was his last good movie comedy that was also live-action? Aside from Anchorman 2, in which his portrayal of Brick didn’t seem to work as well and even seemed beneath him, or behind him at least. We have to go back to The 40-Year-Old Virgin, which arguably had enough drama in it to be pulled into that side of his career. Ever since Little Miss Sunshine, I’ve personally wanted him to go even more serious than he’s been doing since with titles like Dan in Real Life and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. Maybe The Priority List isn’t what I’m looking for either; it sounds too mushy. The delayed Foxcatcher, for which he has transformed himself to play a paranoid schizophrenic murderer, will be the real turning point.

The Priority List could be a continuation of that new direction in Carell’s career, though, and so hopefully it’s equally as impressive. The first step is going bald, and from there we start to trust that he’s going for something different.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.