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Steve Carell’s Range Gets a Showcase With ‘Battle of the Sexes,’ ‘Last Flag Flying’

The film awards season is barely a few weeks old and it already has a candidate for MVP: “Battle of the Sexes” and “Last Flag Flying” star Steve Carell.

When Carell first saddled up to prestige projects 11 years ago in Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ “Little Miss Sunshine,” you could swim in the number of stories noting the comedian’s shift into “serious” territory. It was pretty much what you’d expect for someone who had gone from sketch comedy and stealing scenes from Jim Carrey in “Bruce Almighty,” to dominating air waves with a broadcast sitcom and fronting a major Judd Apatow release, to headlining a high-profile Sundance selection.

A double-dip for indie cred followed soon after with Peter Hedges’ “Dan in Real Life,” but Carell maintained an unpredictable profile. There were humble dramedies (“Crazy Stupid Love,” “The Way Way Back”) mixed in with glossy studio comedies (“Get Smart,” “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone”), striking a balance that kept his brand a fluid one.

Then came Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher” in 2014, and the game totally changed. Carell scooped up a best actor Oscar nomination for a performance that proved his versatility traversed a wider arc than anyone assumed. Sure, he could be the guy who pops in “Anchorman” with hilarious asides and he could play a depressed Proust scholar on a quirky VW bus road trip. But he could also leave you thoroughly unsettled with an immersive portrait of blue-blood vanity and repression.

One year later, Adam McKay’s “The Big Short” added another flourish: Carell didn’t have to be “big” to command your attention in an ensemble. With Ryan Gosling and particularly Christian Bale getting the punchier, louder notes to play, Carell was probably best in show as the straight man, absorbing the heady details of the oncoming financial crisis while putting a very human face on its repercussions.

This year, the 55-year-old actor’s range is on display for all to see, and that could be the key to landing him in the Oscar race yet again; voters have two starkly different characters and performances to observe and contrast.

As aging tennis pro Bobby Riggs in Dayton/Faris’ “Battle of the Sexes,” which hit theaters over the weekend, Carell is in familiar territory. He’s the scene stealer, taking big swings as an opportunist wielding performative misogyny as a means to a financial end. He dresses (or undresses) for silly photo ops while squawking, “I’m going to put the ‘show’ back in ‘chauvinism,'” on the way to an era-defining showdown with budding tennis legend Billie Jean King. But it’s not overtly broad work; Carell’s Riggs, like the movie, is a complexity. Behind the scenes he weathers the pressures of addiction and the crumbling pillars of his family. But he is ostensibly comedic relief.

Compare that with his far-more-decorous work in Richard Linklater’s “Last Flag Flying,” which opens the New York Film Festival Thursday night. As Vietnam veteran Larry “Doc” Shepherd, a soft echo of Randy Quaid’s kleptomaniac sailor Larry Meadows in 1973’s “The Last Detail” (though the film is not, in fact, a sequel), Carell delivers his most restrained performance to date. Yet it’s no less full. Shepherd is a deep well of conflicting emotions in the wake of his soldier son being killed in action in Iraq. Like “The Big Short,” Carell cedes the “big” moments to co-stars Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne, whose sparring banter drives much of the story — it’s sort of a “hang-out movie” in the great Linklater tradition. But the overall story is Shepherd’s, and despite Carell’s lower-key rendition, he is the movie’s lead. (And also like “The Big Short,” he might be best in show.)

Not everyone sees it that way, however. The awards strategy for “Last Flag Flying” is still being hammered out. The latest word is that the whole cast could go supporting, and that Cranston would get the leading tip if anyone did. To mix it up a bit, Carell’s decidedly supporting work in “Battle of the Sexes” could go lead for Golden Globes consideration, supporting for all else.

Regardless of the shop talk, the point here is that Carell might be one of the most versatile screen actors working today, and he has a pair of performances on offer this year that makes the very case. Not only that, but as the season roars to life, he’s further honing his craft with two drastically different real-life portraits: as former state secretary Donald Rumsfeld in McKay’s “Backseat,” and as artist and photographer Mark Hogancamp, the inspiring subject of 2010 documentary “Marwencol,” in Robert Zemeckis’ “The Women of Marwen.”

He’s nearly 60 and it almost feels like he’s just getting warmed up.

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