While like many comic actors, he has a specific persona that he often employs, with tweaks, he's not just a grotesquely hairy, shouty man-child. He is, of course, a grotesquely hairy, shouty man-child, but there are subtleties in all his performances that distinguish them; he's certainly no one-trick pony. And while his career has had both highs and lows, as a great man once said: "60 per cent of the time, it works every time."
With "The Other Guys," from Ferrell's most frequent collaborator Adam McKay, hitting theaters today, earning the actor some of the best reviews of his career, and a return to more serious fare on the horizon, alongside Rebecca Hall in the Raymond Carver adaptation "Everything Must Go," it seemed like as good a time as any to order three fingers of Glenlivet with a little bit of pepper and some cheese, and take a look at John William Ferrell; the man, the work, the legend, the male nudity.
One thing's for sure. Ferrell has never met a sport he didn't think was ripe for satire.
If you examine Jon Favreau's 'Elf" closely, Ferrell's Buddy can be seen as a precise distillation of most of the characters in the actor's filmography: an overgrown man-child who exasperates those around him through his lack of responsibility (he crashes at his father's posh apartment) and his complete inability to act as an adult (he eats everything with maple syrup). But even though we're known for our snark and cynicism here at The Playlist, "Elf" turns us into gleeful, giggling children who earnestly believe in the Capital-S-Spirit of Christmas. It's not just the surprisingly spry Bob Newhart or even the swoonworthy Zooey Deschanel that win us over; it's the wide-eyed wonder of Ferrell himself. He's entirely sincere in a role that others might have played with more than a bit of irony, and his genuine joy is infectious. [B+]
"Wedding Crashers" (2005)
"What is she doing back there? I never know what she's doing," on paper is an incredibly underwhelming line of dialogue, but thanks to Will Ferrell's honest and unflinching portrayal of living-breathing contradiction — the man-child lothario Chazz Reinhold — the line is rendered as a work of comedic art that precipitates tears of awe. David Dobkins' "Wedding Crashers" is far better than it deserves to be, but for all its cliches, it's a timeless modern comedy with some standout turns (Bradley Cooper and Rachel McAdams fully blossomed in these parts). Ferrell's part — the reclusive Casanova — is but a small cameo that lasts perhaps three minutes, but it's a ravishingly psychotic turn as a shut-in who is both generously amiable with his mother's meatloaf and wildly dangerous with nun-chucks, sometimes within the same breath. Ferrell essentially disappears into Chazz, a pioneering wedding crasher, so bored with the art he has perfected, he begins to up his sexual stakes into the realm of funeral pick-ups where grief is nature's aphrodisiac. His proclamation of, "I'm just living the dream," is frighteningly truthful. [A-]
"Kicking & Screaming" (2oo5)
Fairly maligned for stealing its title from a far superior and cherished Noah Baumbach indie comedy about erudite, but clueless college students struggling to become adults, Ferrell's spin on the milieu of futbol — this time as a coach, not a player — is unfairly besmirched for being PG kids-play. But it is a Judd Apatow-produced vehicle — a few months before "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" made him a household name — and it is an amusing, if gentle, riff on the "Bad News Bears" mien; a coach acting inappropriately around children generally provides laughs. If this writer — who once scripted a film with a very similar vibe, focusing on and exaggerating North America's general indifference towards soccer — can still enjoy the picture that made his moot without a trace of bitterness, surely you can give it another whirl. Plus: Robert Duvall and Mike Ditka as rivals. If there is one unique element about 'Screaming' it is that it embodies both of Ferrell's favorite dualities; the character is meek and polite, but thanks to a spiraling caffeine addiction, he blooms into an obnoxious monster. If that's not loaded with deep and pregnant metaphor about the world around us, we're not sure what is. [B]
“Stranger Than Fiction” (2006)
[Sarcasmotron turned off] It’s cliché yes, but the basic premise of the film, in which mild-mannered Harold Crick discovers his life is being narrated in a voice only he can hear by a reclusive author, asks us: what would you do differently if you knew your life was going to end soon? The film, criminally underrated and overlooked by critics and audiences alike, explores that answer with tenderness, humanity and humor. A remarkably tuned-in and dialed-down Will Ferrell finds his rebellious voice in an actual character rather than just amping the pitch of his voice. Aided by a very clever script by Zach Helm that plays like something Charlie Kaufman might have written (but sans the feeling of needing to prove himself on every page), “Stranger Than Fiction” makes it clear that Will Ferrell in a (semi) dramatic role shouldn’t be an oddity. [B]
“Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” (2006)
Like all right-minded people, we believe that NASCAR is an incredibly stupid waste of time, which kept us at a distance during initial viewings of Ferrell’s pure Americana ode to mediocrity. But as the second part in a trilogy with Adam McKay about the success of the unremarkable man, “Talladega Nights” bloomed in a reworked, extended edition on DVD, where not only does the story evolve into a full-blown epic, it also allows for greater character development, enriching each gag. Ricky Bobby, who tastes like America and sports the jockstrap of a lion, has a story not unlike a classic sport narrative, and McKay’s biggest strength is in keeping a straight face about the common tragedies that befall him and his family, allowing the actors to stretch their improv muscles in a much more regimented framework. Not the funniest in Ferrell’s body of work, but maybe the greatest accomplishment. And the commitment to his character's ignorance is simply staggering. [A-]
“Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” (2004)
Ferrell and McKay’s ode to hirsute 1970s newsmen was a tough sell when Ferrell, a doughy up-and-coming comedian, shopped the screenplay he wrote with McKay to studios. Clearly intrigued by the salesmen of a dated era, they had previously run into roadblock after roadblock with “August Blowout,” a car salesman epic that everyone loved but no one wanted to make. It wasn’t until he assembled the dream team of character actor Paul Rudd, former “Daily Show” correspondent Steve Carrell and “SNL” bit player David Koechner that producers realized it might be lightning in a bottle. The camaraderie of the news team goes a long way to selling the absurdity of the tale, involving the squad prepping a story about a panda birth while dealing with the new female anchor (Christina Applegate, so game). And as the pungently virile Burgundy, Ferrell has never been better — a blowhard who proudly wears his ignorance and ego on his shoulder, Burgundy nonetheless has that childlike vulnerability that makes his struggle with a changing era endearing despite his repugnant hubris. [A]
"Melinda & Melinda" (2004)
As an actor, you know you've made when you've either a) appeared in a "Law & Order" episode or b) done a stint in a Woody Allen film. It's hard to believe that "Melinda & Melinda" and "Anchorman" came out in the same year, and while the latter set the standard, the former would mark the meeker, dialed-down persona Ferrell would return to time and again in smaller films throughout the years. As an Allen film it's minor at best, a standard run through his regular tragedy-or-comedy pieces, but Ferrell shows himself as an adept Allen stand-in, matching the director's fastidiousness and mannerisms, but making them his own and not simply mimicking them. Playing an out-of-work actor whose relationship with his filmmaker girlfriend is threatened by the titular Melinda, Ferrell is a remarkable fit in Allen's familiar world and it's an early showcase of the comic's talents outside of writing "Boats & Hoes." Sidenote: if anything, the film is worth watching for its pure New York City apartment pornography. It's kind of jaw-dropping. [C]
As the evil fashion mogul Mugatu, Ferrell embraces his more surreal side as the self-proclaimed titan, inventor of the piano-key necktie and overall menace to the fashion world. Ferrell dials up the insanity to eleven, his portrayal of a style maven maniac appropriately in tune with the film’s tone. While Ben Stiller’s innocent idiot performance tends to wear thin, we never get sick of the grandiose Bond villainy of Ferrell, who never met a scene he couldn’t steal. [B]
"The Other Guys" (2010)
Few films are gutsy enough to tackle the current economic crisis and surge of white collar corruption. But then again, few have the guts that Will Ferrell and his frequent collaborator/co-conspirator Adam McKay display. And few movies about the current economy would have an extended sequence where our two heroes are repeatedly duped into taking bribes, including a scene where they go to a performance of tourist-pleasing Broadway show "Jersey Boys." Now that is cutting satire. But the real surprise of "The Other Guys" is that it's a tentpole with Ferrell drawing laughs by dialing down instead of yelling/throwing things/acting drunk or doing all three at once. It's a bit shocking at first from the guy who wasted no time getting into full-on fisticuffs with Veronica Corningstone, but without spoiling things too much (since the film opened today), you don't want to be in the same room when the Gator comes out. And hey, as an action-comedy (instead of, thankfully, a sports parody) it's not half bad. [B]
"Blades Of Glory" (2007)
Clearly drunk on the haughtiness of believing he can mock any sport, Ferrell beautifully attempts a bijou triple axel flip with a twist and falls flat on his face. Six words: Jon Heder and no Adam McKay. That's all you pretty much need to know about this one. Still, as flat and awful as the film (and Heder) can be, Ferrell can't help but pull out a few clutch laughs from his Chazz Michael Michaels character — pretty much just another variant on his arrogant, armpit-flavored machismo role. Only this time the small twist is he's a raunchy sex addict and of course it's within the ironic realm of men's singles ice skaters. What makes this film arguably different from Ferrell's other sports flicks is that it's really an odd couple story. Two rivals are bounced out of competitive skating due to an ugly public altercation and then bend the rules by joining pair skating, which is obviously usually reserved for men and women. One man is a taco-smelling meathead, the other is a pantywaist, but Heder is dead-weight and Ferrell can only do so much with mediocre material. [C]
“Old School” (2003)
Get married, settle down, park the muscle car and plant a trust tree. Fuck that. While his pals Beanie (Vince Vaughn) and Mitch (Luke Wilson, whose career is so ailing he desperately wants a sequel) are busy reliving their college days, Will Ferrell’s Frank "The Tank" Ricard is a symbol of trangression and rebellion. Rotting spiritually in a social contract whose ramifications have only been felt now that he’s entrenched deep within the confines of marriage, Frank The Tank stirs the primitive anarchist in us all. Dropping trou, imbibing beyond sense, streaking at a house party and desiring KFC isn’t simply the result of too many keg funnels. Instead it’s a grand, brave act of defiance, one that resounded with audiences and put Ferrell on a path of increasingly political and socially-conscious projects that continue to challenge the status quo. Frank shows resilience and yes, that he has something left in the tank at crucial moments — as demonstrated by his staggering debate defeat of James Carville at the 11th hour. And yes, in honor of this film, we wrote this piece completely naked. We salute you, Frank The Tank. [A]
"Step Brothers" (2008)
Easily the most absurd of the Ferrell/McKay/Judd Apatow collaborations (this would make mark 2, after the-almost-as-ludicrous "Anchorman"), "Step Brothers" is feral, ferociously mentally retarded and unhinged with possibility. Mostly an excuse to reteam the unexpected winning formula of Ferrell and John C. Reilly, the 2008 comedy chronicled two forty-something men suffering from acute arrested development who become step-brothers (and roommates) when their divorced parents get married. Playing a trashtalking pussycat, Ferrell's Brennan Huff channels elements we're familiar with, but this time it's essentially a pushover wimp who talks a big game. The defining moment however, is when Brennan, heretofore bullied and abused by his d-baggy older brother (brilliantly played by Adam Scott), musters the courage to sing in public for the first time, sonorously moving the crowd (and us) to tears with a heart-stirring and beautiful rendition of Andrea Bocelli's "Por ti volare." It is the apex of preposterous, and somewhat grotesque, but because it shoots so high, that effulgent moment becomes a shining beacon of art and transcends mere comedy for a sequence cinema has never witnessed before. [B]
Timewarping back to his beloved '70s and the audacious and cavalier mien he so adores, Ferrell, like Icarus, flew too vaingloriously high and burned his ambitions with this ill-conceived comedy centering on the freewheeling and loose world of the American Basketball Association (a rakish version of the NBA that was swallowed up in 1976) and proved once again that without Adam McKay, left to his own devices in the world of sport, Ferrell could flounder. His Jackie Moon is perhaps a serviceable skit character, but the picture and tepid jokes are far from a slam dunk. In years to come when Ferrell is taking on new De Niro-like challenges, "Semi-Pro" may be known as the picture that convinced this thespian that films mining the worlds of golf, croquette, equestrianism and backgammon were perhaps unnecessary ideas. [C-] — Gabe Toro, Kevin Jagernauth, Kimber Myers, Drew Taylor & RP.