Steve Carell has been a busy guy. We’ve seen three movies in the past several weeks in which he stars or costars, to great effect. Welcome to MarWen, Vice and Beautiful Boy, were all released in 2018. His deep dive into dramatic acting since The Office proves once again that comedians are often driven by a reservoir of darker, inner resources they call upon when they drop their comedic masks.
The first film I recall being impressed by was Foxcatcher, a 2014 release that chronicled John Du Pont’s descent into madness. Carell has an uncanny ability to capture cringe-invoking behaviors with a broad portfolio of facial gestures and body language. He leveraged this skill to the utmost in The Office. That outlet provided cringes on steroids, and the show was never the same without him. How many of us have ever said, “That’s what she said” with the enthusiasm, joy and quick-wittedness of Michael Scott?
But this is not just a tribute to the leading man in Beautiful Boy. In fact, most of the many and various award nominations for this film deservingly went to 23 year old supporting actor Timothee Chalamet, whose portrayal of the drug-addicted son is, frankly, difficult to watch. Carell’s performance was solid, though a couple of times I heard Michael Scott’s throaty outbursts sneak through the cracks in what I’ll attribute to a faulty line in the script. Perhaps I admire Carell too much.
And maybe I’m just avoiding the topic at hand, which is so excruciatingly portrayed that halfway through the movie (at home) I was the one with an outburst, “Oh, this is horrible.” Not the movie, the drama onscreen.
I am fortunate not to have experienced first hand the process of spiraling downward physically and emotionally of the characters in Beautiful Boy. But each month that goes by, I hear yet another story from a dear friend or family member of a tragedy that has befallen or is unfolding – very seldom with a happy ending.
I remember a friend who was diagnosed with manic depression long before it was known to be as prevalent or as understood as it is currently. Let’s call her Mary. She looked like Mary, talked like Mary, acted like Mary. But then her Mary-ness became exaggerated and took on either a frantic happiness and randomness, or a sludgelike departure from her norm. She had to be rescued by her husband numerous times, hospitalized, diagnosed and medicated. And they lived happily ever after – so far. Therein lies the ongoing challenge of drug addiction and mental illness. When will it surface again, if ever?
And that’s the gut-wrenching element so responsibly conveyed in Beautiful Boy. At some point the drug takes over, leaving parents, friends and a widening circle of horrified onlookers to react and respond to the “un Mary-ness” of the person who, zombie-like, is no longer making sense.
So that leaves the characters (parents, divorced) blaming each other, and the audience being fed circumstances that make us wonder – did the divorce cause it? Was it their wealth? The helicoptering parenting, humor and risk taking behaviors of the father? No, it was none of those things. Like horrific cultural events that evoke conspiracy theories in the minds of those who can’t grasp the simplistic horror of a random gunman or event, there must be something to blame, something deliberate and complicated.
In a scene with Carell and his new wife, played by Maura Tierney, who we remember from Television’s ER, a group therapy session has a prominently featured wall poster that reads, “You didn’t cause it, you can’t control it, you can’t cure it.” The three C’s. The underlying helplessness of that message is the page that has to be turned – together – by those who care for and love the victim of this illness.
This is a film based on a true story. In the closing credits it is revealed that the father and son each wrote best selling memoirs that contributed to the creation of the film.
One decision I questioned was the casting of Amy Ryan as Steve Carell’s ex-wife. The second she appears, you’re thrust back into The Office relationship between Michael and Holly. Her own respectable filmography since The Office indicates that she hasn’t been typecast by that role, and in fact, once I moved beyond my initial reaction, Holly was forgotten. Perhaps Carell had something to do with that casting choice.
If you’re looking for a feel good movie, Beautiful Boy is not for you. Brace yourself before viewing, but by all means, see this film. If you’ve somehow managed to avoid noticing, our country has a drug crisis on its hands. Only by understanding can we move forward, together. This is an educational opportunity that will leave you thinking long after you see three more explosion-filled superhero movies.