Thursday, August 5, 2010

A semi-defense of Will Ferrell, revisited

Posted By on Thu, Aug 5, 2010 at 11:38 AM

COMEBACK TO THE FUTURE? Will Ferrell in Wireds latest issue
  • COMEBACK TO THE FUTURE? Will Ferrell in 'Wired's' latest issue
The mostly funny buddy-cop spoof The Other Guys deserves to be a comeback vehicle for Will Ferrell, following 2009's mostly unfunny flop Land of the Lost. Once ubiquitous at the cineplex, Ferrell seems to have downshifted his big-screen comedy career. He's had a spotty track record over the past few years, alternating hits like Blades of Glory and Step Brothers with let-downs like Land of the Lost and Semi-Pro, while a deal for Anchorman 2 went into turnaround.

With younger comedic actors like Seth Rogen, Michael Cera and Jonah Hill emerging as leading actors, Ferrell seems only a few failures away from playing nutty-dad roles in perpetuity. The Other Guys, Farrell's latest collaboration with director Adam McKay (Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers) can remind you why you liked the former "Saturday Night Live" star in the first place, and inspired me to revisit my Semi-Defense of Will Ferrell, which originated on the PopSmart blog about two and a half years ago. Ferrell's comedies may not be classics, but the following six points suggest that they have some modest virtues. And compared to the output of Ferrell's fellow "Saturday Night Live" alumni, they could be a lot worse.

1. Ferrell stretches as an actor. A bit. Most of the time, Ferrell's stock character is a pasty, would-be masculine guy who turns into a flailing child when faced with minor obstacles. Ferrell made a made a kind of brand out of nearly interchangeable satires of athletics, celebrity and inept cocksmanship, especially Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Blades of Glory, Semi-Pro and arguably his co-starring turn in Old School. His tends to play George W. Bush through this lens, almost like NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby, without the unclad panic attacks.

A new Slate slideshow argues, counterintuitively, that Ferrell's biggest strength is his versatility. The Other Guys initially flips the script, presenting Ferrell as a sensitive foil to Mark Wahlberg's macho dunderhead. Ferrell emphasized his boyish naivete as a boyish human raised by Santa's helper's in one of his breakout leading roles, Elf. Ferrell turned his arrested development shtick even further inward with Step Brothers. My favorite "serious" Ferrell moment was his performance of this Eagles song in the all-but-unseen dramedy Winter Passing:

2.) Ferrell branches out beyond movies. The highlight of Conan O'Brien's final episode of "The Tonight Show" was Ferrell's rendition of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Free Bird," with a wild cowbell solo harking back to his classic "More cowbell" "SNL" sketch. In recent years, Ferrell took his George W. Bush one-man show You're Welcome, America to Broadway and helping to shape on-line viral humor with the web-site (and subsequent cable series) Funny or Die with Adam McKay. Ferrell stars in some on-line only shorts through Wired's web-site (Here's one.) He's also an executive producer on Danny McBride's HBO sitcom "Eastbound and Down," and in my favorite Ferrell performance of recent years, played an occurring role as Ashley Schaeffer, a car dealership owner who comes across like a sleazy televangelist:

Which reminds me:

3.) Ferrell shares the spotlight. Ferrell comes across as reasonably generous with his comedic co-stars compared to other ex-"SNL" stars. Mike Meyers and Eddie Murphy sometimes have practically no co-stars, using make-up to play the funny parts in Austin Powers, The Klumps, Norbit, etc. Adam Sandler clearly supports the careers of his pals David Spade and Rob Schneider, but more often keeps the punchlines to himself.

Ferrell's comedies have featured career-boosting turns for Steve Carell and Paul Rudd (Anchorman), John C. Reilly (Talladega Nights, Step Brothers), Will Arnett (Blades of Glory and Semi-Pro), Danny McBride (Land of the Lost) and others. Even Andre Benjamin has a solid supporting part in Semi-Pro, although he doesn't do much of the comedic lifting. Sacha Baron Cohen pretty much steals Talladega Nights out from under him, Danny McBride's the funniest member of Land of the Lost's cast - in fact, Farrell barely says anything funny in that film whatsoever.

For the first act of The Other Guys, Ferrell relinquishes some of his trademark hissyfits to Wahlberg. At one point Wahlberg has the outburst "I'm a peacock! I deserve to fly!" before wrestling with a water cooler in the squad room. Granted, Ferrell's character proves far nuttier than Wahlberg's as the film goes on, but he starts out straight-faced:

4.) Ferrell doesn’t grind out sequels - so far. Ferrell’s comedies go down a lot easier than Mike Meyers’ Austin Powers movies did, which regurgitate numbingly similar catch-phrases and comedic situations. Ferrell's sports movies are essentially the same (Anchorman and Semi-Pro both feature bear fights), but at least they're not exactly the same. The cancellation of the Anchorman sequel might be a blessing in disguise.

Once you acknowledge that Ferrell's performances are usually an inch deep, you can take amusement by the subtle differences between them, like Ron Burgundy’s plummy pomposity in Anchorman, Ricky Bobby's faux-heroic posturing in Talladega Nights, and Chazz Michael Michaels' deluded rock-star swagger in Blades of Glory. In Semi-Pro, Ferrell played Jackie Moon, a one-hit wonder pop singer turned basketball team owner and player, who could've used a stronger defining trait, but at least offered the world this:

5.) Ferrell generally eschews sentiment. The A.V. Club recently devoted an inventory item to "10 Moments of Cynical Sincerity in Adam Sandler Films." To his credit, Ferrell tends to avoid schmaltz and, apart from Bewitched, has never been in a straight-up rom-com. If I was forced to see a spotty, derivative comedy, I'd rather see a Blades of Glory than one of those mean-spirited romances like The Ugly Truth or The Heartbreak Kid. No matter how many gross-out gags a rom-com has, it invariably endorses true love and ends on a note of sweetness and light, no matter how idiotic or ill-matched the characters may be. Ferrell's insights into love tend to be no deeper than this.

Ferrell similarly tends to avoid family-oriented comedies like Sandler's Bedtime Stories. Talladega Nights, for instance, avoided an obvious embrace of family values. There's a subplot in which Ricky Bobby leaves tickets at every race for his deadbeat dad (Gary Cole). The father shows up at the end, picks up the tickets and turns around like a born scalper, holding them up and shouting, "I got two!" The sibling reconciliation in Step Brothers tends to affirm their mutual absurdity.

6.) Ferrell’s films tend to be quotable. Perhaps the most interesting thing about Minnesota governor and presidential hopeful Tim Pawlenty is his fondness for quoting Ricky Bobby. He's not the only one who quotes the actor.

You get an impression that the scripts for Ferrell's films amount to little more than lists of kitschy clothes and wacky situations, and on the set they throw everything out to see what sticks. Sometimes nothing sticks, and the approach is no substitute for a clever, character-based screenplay like Judd Apatow's The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Still, I usually leave these movies with at least a couple of quotable lines, like Ricky Bobby's assertion that Highlander won the Oscar for "Best Movie Ever Made," or, in Anchorman, Veronica Corningstone's claim that Brian Fontana's cologne "Sex Panther" smells like "a diaper full of Indian food." I can frequently chuckle just over names like "Chazz Michael Michaels," Semi-Pro's "Flint, Michigan Tropics" or Vince Vaughn's rival newscaster ":Wes Mantooth" in Anchorman. Perhaps it's a damning touch that the oldest of these Ferrell films, Anchorman, has the most highlights, like its rumble between rival news teams.

Ferrell will probably never give the world another Annie Hall or The Graduate, but he's probably given us a couple of Caddyshacks for this generation.

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