Will Ferrell has a new comedy coming out with John C. Reilly this weekend, but the exercise is far from new. I haven’t seen the movie, but in this day and age, you don’t have to actually experience something to judge it. I am going to discuss Ferrell’s previous career choices and how they have planted him at the perilous position he is at right now, a place where his schtick is tired and his appeal has waned.
When Ferrell was on SNL, I thought he was hilarious. His era on SNL is the one that I grew up with, and I have fond memories of his playful execution of the Spartan Cheerleaders gag. He could play the straight man as Trebek, and be the wacky flake Harry Caray just as well. The Ferrell that played the strongest was his sweet clueless goof, tweaking his voice with a big smile, Ferrell could make a laugh just with the twitch of an eyebrow. And surely, no self-respecting SNL fan will ever forget the Cowbell sketch. Keep in mind that all of these bits were in small doses. He was never completely the center of attention, and had seasoned familiar comedians surrounding him in a comfortable situation. Ferrell was teh strongest player on SNL during those years, and his transition to film wasn’t a big surprise.
My earliest memory of Ferrell is the cameo in Austin Powers. The one scene roles turned into supporting roles, like in Dick and The Ladies Man. Then he stole the show in Jay and SIlent Bob Strike Back, in what was to be Kevin Smiths View Askew swan song. These roles bring the first juxtaposition of his strongest comedic personas. The sweet goof that I described before that he mixed surprisingly well with vengeance In Jay and Silent Bob and the screen debut of his surly, mean, still clueless, hairy sociopath in The Ladies Man. The latter of these characters is funny, but for odd reasons. He is this harmless bully, who is oblivious to his own harmlessness, who scowls and growls with a gaping jaw and empty eyes. It works here as the Greco-Roman wrestler with revenge on the mind, but it is a temperate version of this character, he is clean shaven, well dressed, and participates in a sophisticated Olympic sport. This guy isn’t the grungy alcoholic with tattoos and lurid sex stories ala Blades of Glory. I almost forgot about his best supporting role, Mugatu in Zoolander, this was the stronger debut of the villainus delusional narcissist. I always was fond for the Ferrell villain. But again, these are supporting roles in mid to low level comedy features. In either of these movies he has no more than 20 or 30 minutes of screen time. The novelty of the material is still fresh to mainstream audiences, and there isn’t enough to fully lead astray.
Then came the big break. Old School. His depiction of the irresponsible binge drinking Frank the Tank was nothing short of spectacular.He simply carries the entire movie, the storylines with Vince Vaughn and some Wilson brother sink behind Ferrell. The streaking scene, the blow dart scene, the mascot on fire scene; all either cemented or soon to be cemented classic moments in comedy. The film opened the way for the rest of the “frat pack” movies, which is despicable or hilarious, depending on who you ask. But as I rewatched Old School a couple weeks back, I found myself genuinely liking Frank the Tank. He may have a penchant for beer bongs and overzealous partying, but at his heart he is a sweet guy. He is the kind of guy who says “I love you Dad!” at his wedding, looks forward to the “nice little Saturday,” going shopping with his wife, and tells Wilson “I love you,” in his note explaining the eviction. Frank the Tank may not be a responsible person, but he is an admirable one. The reason why is character works as well as it does, is because he isn’t the whole movie. The weakness of Luke WIlsons character and the middle ground of Vince Vaughn elevates Ferrells appropriately. Frank the Tank is not at the center of the plot arc, but somewhere on the side, where his goofy boorish behavior is acceptable and believable. His moments are the relief from the other scenes, we wait for his to start, not for it to end. Patience is an incredibly important factor in comedy.
Another movie that was in development the same tim at Old School was the charming Christmas comedy Elf. The reason that this movie works so well, is because it functions on many levels. It is not just a vehicle for Ferrells childish destructive habits, but it is the story of Buddy, the only adult sized elf, and presents the stronger of the two Ferrell personas at its best. Ferrell isn’t running his usual gags, but is moving with a wide eyed innocence, every line is coated with a sugary silliness. I mean just fucking look at this guy!
Buddy is an absolutely ridiculous character; at that is what makes him so endearing. The lack of awareness to his over zealous Christmas spirit, alienates the people he surrounds in New York, for example the security guard at the Santa station, the incredulous reaction of the family at first, the look on the wonderful Peter Dinklage’s face during the pitch meeting. Buddy is profoundly disturbing, but not in a negative way. His priorities and beliefs are slanted, but with good reason. The absurdity of his character allows some of the best scenes to be plausible. The rapid snowball firing machine is funny because it would be plausible if Buddy was real. The wild extent of his decorations would be plausible if Buddy was real. The genuine pain that Buddy feels when facing the negative reactions would be plausible if Buddy were real. These moments are not just plausible, but affecting, because Ferrell makes it real. This is likely going to be the magnum opus of Ferrell’s career.
The commercial and critical success of Old School led the way for studios to believe that Ferrell could carry a feature role all on his own. Anchorman was the proof of that. Anchorman rarely had a scene that he wasn’t in, and if there was one, the other characters were plotting around him. The aura of Ron Burgundy stinks up the whole theater. Personally, I like Anchorman, and not because of Ferrell’s antics. The camraderie of the news team works well, the shocked reaction to the rise of feminism is hilarious, and the best moments of the movie – the news team battle royal, the Jack Black puppy punting, the party scene at the beginning- may all revolve around Ferrell, but do not rely on it’s star for the biggest laughs.
The template for Ferrell’s success in Old School is mirrored in Anchorman. Ask any person who has seen the movie, and they will tell you that Brick Tamland is the funniest character in the movie. Steve Carrell finally finds his moment to shine, in a supporting role in a mid to upper level comedy feature, just like Ferrell, leading to his own starring role in a feature – The Forty Year Old Virgin. Carrell has executed the rise of his own popularity with much more promise than Ferrell, though he is beginning to suffer his own backlash at the moment, much like Ferrell during this point of his careers trajectory. But that’s a whole different post.
Next came the beginning of the sports trilogy – Talladega Nights, Blades of Glory and The Basketball One. This is where Ferrel found the two essences of his comedy formula; (1) Stupidity – the characters in this movie aren’t always stupid people but they act in stupid or immature ways, RIcky Bobby is irrational and irresponsible with his career and finances, as well as Chazz Michael Michaels who nixed any chances at long term success because of a rivalry and clear substance abuse issues. (2) Zealotry – Whatever mantras these characters subsribe to, they do not do it out of personal faith to their subject, I believe they do it because they do not know what else they can do. They cling to these tired foolish ideas – misogyny and pride in Anchorman, competitiveness and pride in Talladega Nights, partying and self-image in Old School, because the idea as well as the act of changing is overwhelming to their systems.
There is also a repetitiveness in the arcs of the characters in each movie. Each starts with Ferrell being at the top of his game and proud, he is then confronted by worthy competition and begins to falter, only to have the story turn due to a huge embarrassing mistake caused by the error of his ways, i.e. always reading right off the TelePrompTer, even if it says “Go fuck yourself San Diego.” He then hits rock bottom, only to find solace in long lost friends, to then quickly rise back to the top and surmount the insurmountable odds. Happy ending, roll credits.
My problem with these characters, is that this presents these unfortunate traits as admirable traits. The sweaty hairy narciccist is getting laid in all of these movies. Young men have begun to think that acting boorish and egotistical is the way to act to get women and to be funny. In reality this is neither; it is a way to act like a man child with stubborn and selfish interests. This doesn’t work out in the long run.
I am very curious to see how the rest of Ferrell’s career will play out, I hope he will return to the sweet charming doof that charmed me ten or so years ago, or at least continue to stretch his chops with films like Stranger Than Fiction. I just hope those future films will be better than the garbled mess called Stranger Than Fiction