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the star market

The Star Market: As Steve Carell Plans to Leave His Safe Office TV Cocoon, What Is His Value As a Movie Star?

Steve Carell has made it very clear to anyone who will listen that he will be leaving The Office at the end of the upcoming season. When most TV stars announce a departure from their signature show, it leads to much discussion of the hubris of an actor giving up a safe and beloved gig (and the standby debate: Will they be a Clooney or a Shelley Long?). But Carell is something different: He's already a movie star, and with regular starring big-screen roles like the upcoming Dinner for Schmucks (out July 30) and the animated Despicable Me (which opens today), The Office seems almost like a quaint day job that he's been holding on to out of habit and fondness, like Andy Kaufman continuing to bus tables at Jerry's Deli while he was on Taxi. But will he be worth as much at the box office without that weekly TV exposure to remind people how much they like him? There's only one way to find out: see where he falls on the Star Market.

STOCK HISTORY: Carell was a character actor with minimal exposure (Curly Sue, The Dana Carvey Show) when his Second City cohort Stephen Colbert got him on The Daily Show in 1999. For three years, he honed the persona that became a staple of many of his future roles: the loud boor who is only one-third as talented/smart/funny as he thinks he is. This is the core of The Office’s Michael Scott, but he also brought the characterization to his movie-stealing egotistical-anchor role in 2003’s Bruce Almighty, which launched him as a movie draw. (His variation on this archetype is the cluelessly naïve misfit, as seen in Anchorman and The 40-Year-Old Virgin.) Carell is also the rare actor who used movie stardom to become a TV star (at least without waiting twenty years to get a TNT series); The Office notoriously struggled in its first, six-episode season, and it was only when Virgin broke out the following summer that bigger audiences sampled The Office in season two. Since then, he's happily skipped back and forth between the two mediums, his movie career hampered only by the schedule constraints of trying to balance them both. Now he's fully committing to movies, having turned down what Vulture has learned was NBC’s offer of a significant raise and bump in back-end profit participation worth millions of dollars to stay with the network's biggest comedy hit. If his post-Virgin film choices are any indication, he will continue to gravitate toward broad, mainstream comedies (Date Night, Get Smart) that are never quite as good as his best work on The Office, but you're always aware how much worse they'd be without Carell's endearingly manic charms.

PAST EARNINGS:

Original Office Salary (2005): $50 to 75,000 per episode

The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005): $500,000

MARKET VALUE: Unlike a Sandler or maybe even Ferrell, Carell isn't going to get a big-budget ($80 million-plus) tentpole green-lit just on his name alone. But for directors looking for someone with strong comedy chops and reasonably high name recognition — as well as the ability to really act, rather than just mug for the camera — Carell is a great deal. And while his fan base may not be as reliable as Sandler's, he's also not a polarizing figure: There's not a segment of the audience that's going to avoid a Carell movie just because he's in it. Like fellow TV vet Kevin James, Carell also brings no drama to the set; if anything, he's perhaps a bit too Regular Guy, making it hard to build buzz around a project because of his attachment. But Carell also has lots of fans on the talk-show circuit ready to go the extra mile to help him push a movie (see this week's appearance on The Colbert Report).

Date Night (2010): $12.5 million

Dinner for Schmucks (2010): $12 million

Final salary for The Office: $300,000 per episode plus back-end profits

PEERS: Carell is in the same top level as today's other comedic giants: Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, Owen Wilson, Will Ferrell, and Vince Vaughn. Though out of that group, he's the most believable for dad roles. (Or at least for playing a dad who cares.) For a studio that's looking to go younger and/or cheaper, the next step would be Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis, and Seth Rogen.

While Carell has never racked up the $200 million grosses that Stiller and Ferrell have, he can be counted on for solid doubles and triples. And Carell’s genial appeal means he’s not blamed for failure: Take his first blockbuster, the pitifully reviewed Evan Almighty, which was perceived as director Tom Shadyac’s fault, while Carell was treated as the poor guy who got stuck in the wrong movie at the wrong time: You’ll get ‘em next time, Tiger! And though every Carell movie may not be transcendent, his choices show a savvy, thoughtful progression. Judging from the script of his next movie, Crazy, Stupid, Love (which he's also producing), in which he plays a cuckolded dad who turns to a young womanizer (Ryan Gosling) for a tutorial on being a man's man, the film looks to be aiming for an R rating with its profanity-laced jokes. Ultimately, it's the demoralized, sweet dad from Dan in Real Life, but with the treacle replaced with the raucous bite of 40-Year-Old Virgin.

WHAT HOLLYWOOD THINKS: One agent says that Carell's advantage in heading to movies full time is that The Office had a very discerning fan base, which means "a lot of top film talent — big directors, screenwriters, big actors — already want to work with him." However, the rep cautions that he might not have a wide enough appeal to open the bigger budget, high-concept blockbuster comedies, which need someone with more sex appeal. We're paraphrasing — here's how he put it in frank agentspeak: “If I’m a woman, Vince Vaughn is the funny guy friend I’d want to fuck; Owen Wilson, sure — but you don’t want to fuck Steve Carell." A publicist praises his everyman image: When Carell, a quiet married dad, makes public appearances, he's either doing a bit (like his fake award-show rivalry with Ricky Gervais) or being impenetrably modest. And that lack of drama or salacious extracurricular lifestyle helps him with audiences. "He works as a very specific type of leading man," says the flack. "Likable, comedic, just good-looking enough. Not intimidating good-looking. He can play a dad. A husband. A goofy man who runs a company. Audiences accept him as all of these things, because he can wear Dockers or a tuxedo and not look ridiculous in either. He’s a likable personality who people don’t think anything else about other than they like him."

THE ANALYSIS: Carell won't lose anything by leaving TV. At this point, the only thing he would have to gain by sticking around (other than the millions of dollars he leaves on the table) is enduring the inevitable "The Office isn't as good as it used to be!" backlash. Ultimately, he stands to inherit Steve Martin's career: Both are deft broad, physical comedians who can also get laughs by sitting very, very still. And with both of them, you get the feeling that they take being funny very, very seriously; audiences know they're in good comedic hands. For more than 30 years, Martin has happily frolicked in silly movies, and while he'll occasionally try out a dramatic role (Leap of Faith, Grand Canyon), he's careful to never wander away from humor for too long; regardless of how his serious films fare, people never lose track of him as a comedy star. Carell smartly seems to be aping this route; he can still make the occasional Dan in Real Life as long as he zips back to the audience's comfort zone for the next few movies. (Beware the cautionary tale of Jim Carrey, who vanished into serious fare too often, making his returns to goofy movies harder to buy; they came off like cash grabs, and the audience suspected he wasn’t happy to be there.)

While Carell has never racked up the $200 million grosses that Stiller and Ferrell have, he can be counted on for solid doubles and triples. And Carell’s genial appeal means he’s not blamed for failure: Take his first blockbuster, the pitifully reviewed Evan Almighty, which was perceived as director Tom Shadyac’s fault, while Carell was treated as the poor guy who got stuck in the wrong movie at the wrong time: You’ll get ‘em next time, Tiger! And though every Carell movie may not be transcendent, his choices show a savvy, thoughtful progression. Judging from the script of his next movie, Crazy, Stupid, Love (which he's also producing), in which he plays a cuckolded dad who turns to a young womanizer (Ryan Gosling) for a tutorial on being a man's man, the film looks to be aiming for an R rating with its profanity-laced jokes. Ultimately, it's the demoralized, sweet dad from Dan in Real Life, but with the treacle replaced with the raucous bite of 40-Year-Old Virgin.

BOTTOM LINE: His departure from The Office is a loss only to audiences, not to him. Though his future movies may only occasionally reach the cringingly funny heights of his show's past episodes, it's time to get out of Scranton. He's already a movie star — a Peter Sellers without the crazy — and has the kind of widespread, non-divisive appeal that will allow him a career until he chooses to stop.

BUY/SELL/HOLD: A strong buy!

Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images