(Netflix Streaming, November 2016) There’s something to be said about screen personas, and one of the most amazing aspect of reading about the development of Daddy’s Home after watching the film is finding out the pairs of actors once considered for the two main roles of the film and how drastically they would have changed the film. On-screen, Will Ferrell has no problem becoming the semi-naïf good-natured dad, while Mark Wahlberg is immediately credible as a blue-collar macho type. Seeing them square off to gain their affection of kids is almost immediately funny, and it doesn’t take much for their personas to clash. Now trying to imagine Vince Vaughn instead of Wahlberg, or Ferrell as the macho guy facing against Ed Helms suggest entirely new movies. Now, the corollary about the power of typecasting is the accompanying caveat that much of Daddy’s Home script is almost disposable. Stringing along half a dozen recurring gags, the film pretty much goes through the expected motions, leaving just enough time to showcase the actors doing what they do best. Points are awarded for a conclusion that leaves everyone happy, and a coda that even manages an ironic flip of the situation. While Daddy’s Home doesn’t have many surprises, it does execute what it wants to say reasonably well, and makes Ferrell far more tolerable than in many other movies.
(On DVD, September 2016) “Will Ferrell as a NASCAR driver” is reportedly how Talladega Nights was green-lit, and it’s the only thing you really need to know about the film. Ferrell brings his usual man-child persona to the NASCAR world and the result is even with the other core movies of his filmography: expect dumb humour, at least one big freak-out, and plenty of juvenile gags. It works in its own manner: By firing so many jokes, Talladega Nights eventually lands a few, and it can coast a long time on the other actors propping up in the movie. John C. Reilly wasn’t known as a silly comedian at the time (Since then and films such as Walk Hard and Step-Brothers, that has changed), Amy Adams appears in a short but striking role, and Sacha Baron Cohen also brings the laughs as a French antithesis to Ferrell’s red-state persona. The film is passably quotable (even from its opening title card), and some of the raceway action is genuinely impressive in its own right. Talladega Nights, in other words, is no more and no less than what it promises to be, even if that may not be exactly what viewers want.
(On Cable TV, August 2016) For a television show adaptation that could have coasted on simply reprising the basic elements of the original, there is a whole lot more postmodernism to Bewitched than necessary … and it does help make the movie better than it should have been. Less-annoying-than-usual Will Ferrell stars as an arrogant high-profile comic actor in desperate need of a hit, accepting a lead role on a TV show based on the old Bewitched TV show. So far so good, except that the show also ends up selecting an unknown woman (Nicole Kidman) as the co-lead … unaware that she’s a witch trying to go straight. Numerous hijinks ensue, helped along by the multiple levels of fiction and wizardry. Written and directed by Nora Ephron, Bewitched does have a gentle comic quality heightened by it meta-fictional nature. Ferrell is more or less up to his own standards, but Kidman is effortlessly charming as a good witch, with Michael Caine as her disapproving father. Shirley MacLaine also shows up as a matriarch with secrets, plus Steven Colbert in an actual character role. The film itself isn’t that great, but it’s decently entertaining for what it is, and it would have been far less interesting had it not nudged, even gently, in postmodernism. As far as adapting old TV shows are concerned, I’ve seen worse.
(Netflix Streaming, October 2015) As much as I have in my mind the notion of a quintessential “Will Ferrell movie”, I’m not sure which Will Ferrell movie that I’d designate as the most representative one. Old School, maybe? Semi-Pro may also fit the bill: It’s nothing more than a dumb sports comedy in which Ferrell gets to grandstand with idiotic set-pieces. As the none-too-bright owner of a minor-league sports team who may get a shot at an NBA franchise, Ferrell’s character gets to play ball, propose dumb audience-pumping schemes and somewhere along the way become (not much of) a better person. The plot itself doesn’t really amount to anything more than an excuse for various comic set-pieces, but the surprise is how many of them don’t stick in mind. The bear wrestling sequence works, granted, but much of the rest of the film just lies inert beyond Ferrell’s usual man-child screaming. Considering Semi Pro as quintessential Ferrell, and then seeing it fail to make an impression, may tell us much about Ferrell’s chosen comic persona.
(On TV, August 2015) I have a soft spot for comedies that take on a relatively specialized subject and then try to milk as many laughs out of it. Blades of Glory is recognizably “a Will Ferrell film”, which is to say a broad mainstream comedy that relies on Ferrell’s particular brand of humor. And yet, it executes the usual formula competently, can depend on a couple of good performances and even features Montréal as Montréal. Ferrell is less annoying than usual in a role that benefits from machismo arrogance rather than simply his usual man-child persona. (The film itself also gets a lot of comic mileage in confronting bad-boy macho aesthetics with those of figure ice-skating, and not all of it is mean-spirited.) Fortunately, the jokes work, while Will Arnett and Amy Poehler make for a good pair of antagonists. The ice-skate chase through Montréal is funnier if you have an idea of the city’s geography (unsurprising hint: it’s all over the place). The cast includes a number of famous and infamous figure skaters, and the work required to transform Ferrel and Jon Heder in world-class skaters seems curiously effective. While Blades of Glory isn’t much more than an assembly-line mainstream Hollywood comedy, it’s well-tuned for its purpose and works reliably well as getting its smiles. (Useless personal trivia: When I travelled to Los Angeles in 2006, my only encounter with Hollywood filmmaking in the wild came at the Los Angeles Stadium, when I saw a few trailers tagged as being from “Blades of Glory”. I find it a bit ironic that it would be for a film that features Montréal so prominently… which is where I boarded the plane for Los Angeles. )
(Video on Demand, July 2015) There is something almost irresistibly promising about the premise at the core of Get Hard: What if a privileged naïf, framed for white-collar crime, had to ask for help in facing being locked-up? What if the tough-black-guy asked for help was just as innocent as the convicted man? Give the two main roles to Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart and you can almost imagine the film itself. There’s even some room for social commentary, populist rage and racial-divide commentary. But what do we actually get in Get Hard? Alas: Racist, homophobic and just plain mean humor. While a little bit can go a long way, the film is wearying in is near-constant carpet-bombing of the same jokes, repeated without much variation. Rape isn’t funny, and neither is specifically homosexual prison rape, so it’s distressing to see the film reach for the same joke every five minutes or so, even in watered-down forms that look a lot like plain homophobia. Much of the same can be said about the film’s lazy approach to racial stereotyping –setting a sequence inside a white supremacist headquarters can’t hid the fact the Get Hard doesn’t allow for much racial nuance in how it portrays its non-leading characters, and that the seemingly unconscious racism is used as a crutch instead of wittier material. While Ferrell and Hart are adequate in their roles, they’re not fed very interesting material and the result feels like a waste of two talented comedians; at best, they rescue a script that would have led to a disaster in the hands of less likable performers. While not entirely unfunny (thrown enough jokes at the screen and a few are bound to stick), Get Hard feels more juvenile than funny and while you may laugh once or twice, you may not necessarily like yourself for doing so.
(Crackle streaming, February 2015) I’ve been checking off a list of “unseen must-see movies” lately, and some of my least-favourite ones are those films belonging to the filmography of popular comic actors that I don’t find particularly funny… in this case: Will Ferrell. (Also see; Adam Sandler) Stupidity is celebrated here as two thirtysomething men with the EQ of unpleasant eight-year-olds are forced to live together when their parents remarry. From afar, Step Brothers looks like the dumbest thing to have been filmed, and the actual film often feels like it, what with Ferrell and John C. Reilly doing their best impression of socially-retarded man-children. I can’t deny that some of the sight gags can be amusing, but given my distaste for Ferrell’s typical overgrown-toddler shtick, Step Brothers was often an endurance exercise –especially given how often it relies on the kind of humiliation-comedy gags that I find unbearable. Mary Steenburgen and Richard Jenkins are particularly enjoyable, but their characters suffer the brunt of most of the film’s jokes. A surprising amount of Step Brothers is mean-spirited on top of everything else, so it’s no surprise if my final reaction to the film really isn’t all on the positive side.
(Video on Demand, April 2014) I remain a bit out of the popular opinion loop when it comes to the original Anchroman: While the film has its moments, it feels as aggressively dumb as its lead characters, and in no way warrant any kind of cult-classic status. But then again, I’ve never been much of a fan of Will Ferrell. So when this sequel doubles-down on nearly everything that made Anchroman, well, Anchorman, it makes sense that any feeling about the first film may be transferred nearly-intact to this sequel. The Good? Well, Anchorman 2‘s comedic carpet-bombing makes it so that it does manage to score a laugh or a chuckle from time to time. It does get better as it gets weirder. The end “newscaster brawl” has a high density of celebrity cameos and sight gags (although the fact that nearly everyone wasn’t there at the same time becomes painfully obvious, plus why not pick Montréal-born Rachelle Lefebvre or Jessica Paré rather than French-from-France Marion Cotillard as the French-Canadian reporter?), and the script manages a few points for taking on the general dumbing-down of news. Still, much like the first film seemed awfully indulgently sexist in its depiction of sexism, Anchorman 2 does seem inordinately pleased in its own stupidity while criticizing the erosion of intellectual standards. Much of the film works better conceptually than on the screen: I suspect that the loose improvisational nature of the film comes from the production, and the lack of a tight script makes it hard to hit and sustain specific plot points. Watching the film can be aggressively annoying at times, since much of the humor seems to be based around awkward screaming and fake panic –it gets old quickly. Ultimately, I suspect that the audience for this film self-selects based on their liking of Ferrell’s comic shtick. I can tolerate it at small doses, and having seen Anchorman 2 I find myself satisfied for the next year or so.
(On-demand Video, December 2012) After a year in which a singularly bland US presidential campaign still managed to dominate media attention, everyone was ripe for a silly comedy lampooning the American electoral process. So it is that The Campaign creates a face-off between gifted comedians Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis as two men vying for a US congressman slot. This very local-level comedy works in part because it controls its lead comedians effectively, and in part because it tries to push the absurdity of modern US politics to its breaking point. Punching babies, hitting dogs, political ads spiced by amateur pornography, intentional shootings, pervasive profanity and other gags are all part of the plot, but the real insanity here is all-too-familiar. (The film gets its most acid laugh from a simple shot showing how deeply moneyed interest have perverted the electoral process at the ballot box itself.) Of course, it’s crude, blunt and unsubtle: It’s a Jay Roach film, after all, and he seems intent here on producing a gonzo counterpart to his more nuanced work on Game Change. As a comedy, it delivers: there’s a laugh every few minutes, and smiles throughout. Both lead actors are dedicated to their characters, and the level of obscenity seems carefully restrained to get laughs while avoiding going too far. While The Campaign may not have much of a shelf life in the long run, it’s good enough at the moment, and should find a modest audience.
(On DVD, January 2012) Much like I missed seeing author-centric Wonder Boys at the time of its release, it took me years to come along to Stranger than Fiction, a film in which an everyday man suddenly starts hearing narration about his life… informing him that he’s about to die. The wait was worth it, as Stranger than Fiction features Will Ferrell’s best role to date and a resonant message about life’s most important trivialities. The script allows itself a bit of fun with literary theory, satirizes the pathologies of authors and leads to a satisfying conclusion. Ferrell is effectively restrained in this atypical performance and, at the exception of a few shouted Ferellisms, comes across as far more sympathetic than his usual man-child persona. Meanwhile, Maggie Gyllenhaal is unspeakably cute as the love interest; Dustin Hoffman turns in a charming performance as a literary theoretician called to the rescue and Emma Thompson is pitch-perfect as a neurotic author. Quirky, oddball and remarkably smarter than most other comedies (the “flours” joke is awesome), Stranger than Fiction asks interesting questions and suggests compelling answers. The script’s only flaw is a concept that’s almost richer than what the script can deliver: I could have used more scenes from the author’s point of view, or a more sustained interest in the wristwatch. But what made it on-screen is good enough. Of course; I’ve written enough fiction to be a particularly good audience for that kind of story. Non-writer’s opinions may vary… although not by much.
(On DVD, May 2011) Will Ferrell’s usual kind of comedy leaves me cold, but various people kept telling me that Anchorman wasn’t just “any other Will Ferrell movie.” They’re right, but not by much: While Anchorman does indeed feel like a more fully-featured comedy than “any other Will Ferrell movie”, in large part due to the comic intent to revisit the TV news universe of the seventies, it doesn’t stray too far away from the arrested adolescence, casual misogyny and profane nonsense that seems to characterise his career. While Anchorman seemingly wants to be making some kind of statement about dumb patriarchy facing the rise of professional women, it does seem to enjoy making sexist jokes quite a bit and for the entire duration of the film. What it does have running for it, however, is a large streak of absurdist comedy, a fair number of catchphrases (“Stay classy, San Diego”), the sense that there are a few attempts at characterization (Ferrell’s “Ron Burgundy” goes beyond being Ferrell to an actual comic character) and an all-out brawl that serves a better purpose as an on-screen reunion of several film comedians from Ben Stiller to Vince Vaughn to Tim Robbins. Christina Applegate also holds her own against the boys of the picture, which isn’t a small achievement given how often she’s the butt of the jokes. It’s not exactly a bad film, but it’s largely a useless one, and trying to listen to the DVD commentary only highlights that point. The irony is that there’s a good film to be made about the golden time of “Action TV News” in the seventies… but Anchorman isn’t really interested in more than low comedy.
(In theaters, August 2010) I don’t usually enjoy Will Ferrell’s brand of semi-retarded adolescent-grown-old comedy, so my expectations going into The Other Guys were as low as they could be. That explains my surprise at this generally successful buddy-movie cop comedy. Of course, everything will look great after the disaster that was Cop Out earlier in 2010; still, The Other Guys has a lot of fun cataloguing, tweaking and subverting an entire list of action movie clichés. It starts with a treat of a cameo, as Dwayne Johnson and Samuel L. Jackson play bigger-than-life parodies of the action-movie cops we’re used to see on-screen. Then it’s back to “the other guys” who fill the paperwork and do the actual investigation that goes on behind the usual action sequences: Will Ferrell as a nebbish cop with a wild past and normally-staid Mark Wahlberg as a competent policeman held back by a mistake. The film comes with half a dozen of respectable action sequences, and a steady stream of hilarious moments. Of course, it doesn’t always work: The danger is subverting conventions that exist given their storytelling power is that the subversion often robs the film of its story. At times, The Other Guys is too scattered and less satisfying than it should have been. Another problem is that the material is so broad that it’s often uncontrolled: a number of scenes run too long and feel too dramatic in the middle of so much silliness. (The credits, for instance, wouldn’t feel out of place in a Michael Moore film.) Those tonal problems can be annoying: While the film generally takes place in a recognizable reality, it also occasionally slips up and spends a few moments in a far more fantastical Simpsonesque universe, and the shifts between both tones only reminds us of realism’s dullness. But the advantages of such a scatter-shot approach are that sooner or later, another good moment will come along to make everyone forget about the latest dull sequence. A number of eccentric characters all get their moment in the spotlight (few more so than Michael Keaton’s father-figure captain or Eva Mendes as a supposedly-plain wife), much as a few standout sequences really pop, such as a bullet-time sequence of wild debauchery tableaux, continued abuse of the protagonist’s poor Prius and a purely indulgent slow-motion boardroom shootout. The Other Guys isn’t focused and runs out of laughs toward the end, but bits of it are clever and its overall impact is surprisingly charming.
(On TV, sometime around July 2010) If anyone wonders why I’m not much of a Will Ferrell or Vince Vaughn fan, let me point at Old School and shrug. Their chosen screen personae are that of overgrown men-child prone to temper tantrums and a shocking lack of self-reflection, and this movie allows that persona to run wild without constraints. It is, literally, about thirty-something adults regressing to an earlier stage of development, starting a fraternity to relive their college glory days. Is it fitfully entertaining? Of course. Is it a reprehensible anthem to the arrested man-childs? Somewhat. Is it designed for me? Absolutely not. In retrospect, this may be most notable as an early prototype of the kind of movie that would come to dominate American film comedy by 2009 (the link to The Hangover, with common director Todd Phillips, is certainly not accidental.) Otherwise, there isn’t much to say about Old School: It’s pretty much what you can expect from the premise or trailer, for better or for worse.