Wherefore Will Ferrell?

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Five: that’s roughly the number of minutes I was able to stand Will Ferrell’s Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga (2020).

“No man this age should ever waste his life doing this” I said to myself, and by that I meant simultaneously: 1) Will Ferrell’s character in the movie; 2) Will Ferrell in making the movie; and 3) Myself, in watching the movie. I just now went down the list of Ferrell’s comedies trying to find one I can find any redeeming qualities in, but to me they’re all like that watery cabbage soup they give the inmates in prison camps in places like North Korea and Siberia. If you think Will Ferrell makes great comedies, you’re not qualified to talk to me! Defend or praise any of Will Ferrell’s movies to me only if you’re feeling sucidal or in some kind of perverse masochistic funk where you want to have the stuffing kicked out of you in the alley behind the Critic ‘s Club. The first reader to reply, “Hey, Anchorman‘s pretty cool!” will be driven over repeatedly by my Critic-Mobile.

Most recently, I had a go at his 2009 take on the ’70s kids’ show Land of the Lost.  I lasted about a half hour with that one. I hung around for the special effects, but just could not bear the idiotic screenplay. You wonder who these reboot movies are for. The 14 year olds they seem aimed at don’t know the original shows, and those old enough to remember those shows hate these unworthy, ironic rehashes.

Everbody has their post-SNL bête noire whom they scorn and use as a shorthand for everything bad. Many choose Adam Sandler, but for reasons I described here, I rather like him. Others look down their noses at Rob Schneider, but not having the same amount of monster success as the other two, he hardly seems worth wasting an obsession on. But BOY do I not see the point of Will Ferrell. I perceive that he’s kind of hapless and goofy, and that he has these beady eyes that are set too close together. What I do not see is a great comic talent, physically or verbally, animating that clunky body. His characters may seem anxious or petulant or whatever, but not in a way that strikes me as funny. He plays it straight, as his Groundlings training taught him to do, but the result never seems absurd to me, only shrill and labored.

Young people who grew up with his performances no doubt see him differently. I was a young dad during his SNL years (1995-2002), and had very little time for TV. When I subsequently looked at some of that work, e.g., his George W. Bush impression, I was singularly unimpressed. Really, anyone can do that. Anchorman (2004), I think, is one of his better vehicles, but goes nowhere NEAR fulfilling the promise of its premise. One strongly detects a screenplay that is semi-improvised, and I find most of the business Ferrell comes up with, whether it’s a line, or a piece of slapstick, exceedingly weak and lame, lacking surprise or inspiration or wit. It’s okay if you’re not sophisticated, but in that case you damn well better make a gut-busting face, or take some kind of tumble that no one’s ever seen before. By the way, I LOVE almost all his usual comedy co-stars, guys like Ben Stiller, John C. Reilly, Vince Vaughn, etc. But all of those sports comedies, Kicking and Screaming (2006), Talladega Nights (2006), Blades of Glory (2007), Semi-Pro (2008), leave me cold. The spines of their plots are fine (if formulaic), I usually find, but the dialogue and the characters (at least Ferrell’s characters) are underbaked, unworthy, surface-scratching things. And when he’s attempted more serious stuff as an actor, such as Woody Allen’s Melinda and Melinda (2004) and Stranger Than Fiction (2006), he seems like a fish out of water, just not up to the task.

But there is a positive answer to the question “Why is there a Will Ferrell?” Because I think he is a TERRIFIC producer. In 2007 he helped launched the website Funny or Die, which by now is an important American institution, at least in the world of comedy. And that led to his participating in the production of dozens of movies and TV shows. I’m a big fan of many projects that bear his imprimatur as producer, including his work with the subversive team of Tim and Eric, and series like Succession (2018-present) and the terrific Dead to Me (2019-20) as well as the innovative live Norman Lear tribute he produced in 2019 with Jimmy Kimmel. There’s something to be said for comedy auteurs who stay somewhere behind the camera. If Ferrell ultimately elects to remain there (offscreen) in future, my respect for him will be undiluted.