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Monday, March 3, 2008

A semi-defense of Will Ferrell

click to enlarge ferrell.jpg

(Image courtesy of New Line)

Will Ferrell’s 1970s basketball comedy Semi-Pro earned about $15 million over the weekend, well short of expectations. On their respective opening weekends, Ferrell's Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby made $47 million and Blades of Glory earned $33 million. Semi-Pro's disappointing earnings could be blamed on its R-rating, but it also suggests that his fans are tiring of Ferrell films that spoof sports, or the 1970s, or both at once.

Most critics cried foul at Semi-Pro, so I find myself in the unlikely position of defending Ferrell. Sure, Ferrell can make a pretty big target. Ever since he became a breakout star on "Saturday Night Live" (where, among other claims to fame, he played the cowbell in the now famous "More Cowbell" sketch), he's specialized in playing pasty, would-be macho men who turn into flailing children when faced with minor obstacles. He's made a kind of brand out of nearly interchangeable satires of athletics, celebrity and inept cocksmanship, especially Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Blades of Glory and Semi-Pro, the latest and least of them. (He didn't play the lead in Old School, so it probably doesn't count.) They’re not great comedies by any means, being predictably plotted, bored with characterization and uninterested in commenting on the real world.

Even while recognizing their faults, I laugh all the way through pretty much all of them — even Semi-Pro, empty and forgettable as it is. 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 doesn’t grind out sequels. Ferrell’s comedies go down a lot easier than Mike Meyers’ Austin Powers movies, 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. You don't have to hear Ron Burgundy utter endless variations of "Stay classy, San Diego!" for umpteen movies.

Once you acknowledge that Ferrell's performances are 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, almost Dubya-like posturing in Talladega Nights, and Chazz Michael Michaels' deluded rock-star swagger in Blades of Glory. In Semi-Pro, Ferrell plays Jackie Moon, a one-hit wonder pop singer turned basketball team owner and player. Moon's "Love Me Sexy" plays like an extension of Chazz's erotic poetry "Let Me Put My Poems in You":

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Jackie Moon could use his own distinguishing trait, but at least he's not literally a recycled character.

2) Ferrell shares the spotlight. Ferrell comes across as reasonably generous with his comedic co-stars compared to other ex-"SNL" stars. Pressed to come up with a funny co-star in an Adam Sandler film, you might only recall Bob Barker in Happy Gilmore or Sean Astin in 50 First Dates. 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.

Ferrell's comedies have featured career-boosting turns for Steve Carell (Anchorman), John C. Reilly (Talladega Nights), Will Arnett (Blades of Glory and Semi-Pro) 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 (like you can see in this extended scene):

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/0uLapzxUBPI" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

It's hard to think of another comedy star so cool with being upstaged.

3) Ferrell’s sports spoofs aren't sentimental. Aren't you glad Ferrell mostly avoids romantic comedies? (Bewitched notwithstanding.) If I was forced to see a spotty, familiar comedy, I'd rather see a Semi-Pro than one of Ben Stiller's mean-spirited romances like Along Came Polly 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.

"Subversive" is probably too heavy an adjective for Ferrell's comedies, but their treatment of sports and celebrity have some satiric teeth, simultaneously mocking and affirming sports cliches. The exception is Kicking and Screaming, Ferrell's hopelessly lame soccer-dad comedy that keeps him muzzled for most of the film, and has him apologize for cutting loose at the end.

Talladega Nights offered far more pointed parodies of NASCAR fans and commercialization than Pixar's Cars did. Its big climactic shot of Ferrell and Cohen kissing did a number on Red State political issues. The film even 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!"

I can't see Blades of Glory as doing anything but holding figure skating up for ridicule, particularly in the inventive ridiculous of the Queen-scored finale, along with the broadcasters' breathless commentary:

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/rV2j8WJU9bY" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

"Flash! Ah-aaa!"

4) Ferrell’s quantity-over-quality approach can pay off. You get an impression that the scripts for these 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, or this reverie on the meaning of true love:

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/II-mOOHbBTo" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

Perhaps Ferrell needs to reunite with Apatow, who produced Anchorman and Talladega Nights.

5) Ferrell's kitschy costumes are funny.

They are so! Who doesn't laugh at a man-fur?

6) Ferrell's noisiness makes his quiet moments more effective. Ferrell's frequent co-stars, Luke and Owen Wilson, cultivate their acting skills and indie credentials by appearing in the films of Wes Anderson. Ferrell doesn't seem to have a comparable creative partnership with a director of "art comedies," so he hasn't shown much in the way of dramatic chops. He could use a collaborator like Bill Murray found with Jim Jarmusch. Still, sometimes Ferrell's attempts to stretch have paid off. Stranger Than Fiction didn't quite live up to its ambitions, but offered a diverting tale and more restrained comic work from Ferrell. My favorite "serious" Ferrell moment was his performance of this Eagles song in the all-but-unseen dramedy Winter Passing:

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/zNhnXQn8ckE" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

Given Semi-Pro's reception, Ferrell may end up with more time to try playing it straight.

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