Good Will Hunting:
A teenage schoolboy in Superstar (1999), one of the best films to emerge from the Saturday Night Live school. An eternal dependent son in Wedding Crashers (2005) – repeatedly yelling “Mom!” – and in Step Brothers (2008). Quintessentially, an innocent, uninhibited wild-child in a grown-up body in Elf (2003). The American actor Will Ferrell is notable, firstly, for his agelessness – or rather, his insistent dwelling in childhood, pre-pubescent and adolescent ages. Is there any current comedian who so completely confuses us on this level – to the extent that we might well wonder how old he really is? (In fact, he’s 42 this year, 2009.) Like Jerry Lewis, Ferrell lingers long in an unsocialised, pre-adult realm. “Not yet properly introduced to the world we live in”, like in a Nicholas Ray movie. A key film (if not one of the best) in the development of Ferrell’s career was Old School (2003), which levered him out of teen comedies while simultaneously launching him as the arrested adolescent, forever trying to recapture his former, lawless youth. All this sets the stage for Ferrell’s screen persona: his exhibitionism (so many “look at me!” scenes), his narcissism (often appearing more to act into a mirror, or straight to the camera, rather than with fellow performers), his constant whining and complaining, his seeking to centre all attention on himself. Even when he is an obviously adult hero – in Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006), for instance – he is fixed within the traumas of his relations with stern parental figures (like the long-absent, errant father whose crippling mantra is “If you’re not first, you’re last!” – and who pairs his son with a wild cougar in his car so that he can “face his fear”). This enduring childishness (it is difficult to imagine Ferrell himself – kin to Jean-Pierre Léaud on this point – playing a father with kids in a film) is why Ferrell can perfectly understand and dialogue with the nonsensical, babbling admonitions of a tiny child in the popular 2007 Internet movie The Landlord (from the Funny or Die site), as if both were at exactly the same level of developmental (im)maturity – a gag that brilliantly annuls the usual meaning of the alternation between extreme high-angle (adult POV) and extreme low-angle (child POV). Will Ferrell movies frequently provide strange and imaginative adventures in cinematic point-of-view – like being inside the oversize costume head, right there with his vomiting face, in the sublime Blades of Glory (2007).
Will Ferrell loves to play characters who love themselves, stupidly. Boundless egotism: for example, the SNL skit “More Cowbell” in which, as a clueless rock muso, he (with Christopher Walken’s encouragement) “explores the space” with his monotonous clanging bell. Or a supreme SNL moment, one that surely influenced some young voters in 2008’s USA election: Ferrell as George Bush, Jr, saying over and over, with babyish pointing gestures, that when you vote for John McCain, you will “see my face”. And hence, above all, his “Mediocre American Man” series of losers who think they’re great: currently, this announced Trilogy stands at Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004) and Talladega Nights – although surely several of his other works could also already fit the bill. These two films, as well as Blades of Glory and Semi-Pro (2008), are based on the relentless discrepancy between the character’s lovingly cultivated, preening self-image, and the tawdry reality: seductiveness versus sleaziness (Blades of Glory), virtuosity vs. mediocrity (Jethro Tull-style flute solo in Anchorman), professionalism vs. dumb luck (Semi-Pro). Such evident career coherence raises an obvious question: how in charge is Ferrell? Is he his own auteur? Many – maybe most – gifted comedians, in America or elsewhere, are not: in the immense shadow of actor-directors like Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton (at least for a while), Jerry Lewis and Albert Brooks, or Maurizio Nichetti, Alberto Sordi, Jean-Pierre Mocky and Nanni Moretti, they do not manage to either take the reins of their own career, or rendezvous with the writer-director who could make the most of their talents. American cases in point: Jim Carrey, Robin Williams, Tony Randall, Molly Shannon, Charles Grodin. On the other hand, Ferrell at least has his key creative alliances: with Adam McKay, for instance. Ferrell turns up (for example in Step Brothers) as co-writer and Executive Producer – and has a big hand in the Funny or Die website. But is that enough to sustain his genius? Other industry forces appear to be pushing him in other directions – into more conventional romantic comedies like Bewitched (2005), for example (see Proposition 4) – as well as into more-or-less straight dramatic roles (Stranger than Fiction, 2006), which is the eternal temptation for every comedian. But both of those options would mean that Will Ferrell would have to grow up (see Proposition 1) …
It was Luc Moullet (curious case of a director who became a comic actor through his own work – like Godard, to a lesser extent) who once said that, in the realm of the comedy, the motto of the director-actor should be: he stoops to conquer. Meaning: nothing is too vulgar, too base, too degrading for him (or her) to perform, no act or situation or gesture or posture. The comedian must deform himself, debase himself, make himself look as ugly, as grotesque as possible: this is his Blade of Glory. (Elaine May, great and unsung American auteur, took a more unusual route: she made her daughter, Jeannie Berlin, stoop to conquer in the original The Heartbreak Kid of 1972.) Ferrell goes further in this direction than most American comedians. Jerry Lewis could contort himself spastically again and again, but the narcissism of the actor (as opposed to the mirror-stage narcissism of his screen character) always insisted on the absolute beauty, trimness and fitness of his body (it took massive ill health and medication for his body, quite late in life, to finally take its revenge against this punishing regime of agelessness). Ferrell is different: in “More Cowbell” or Blades of Glory, he lets his hairy gut hang out; in contradistinction to his childlike nature and his curly hair, the encroaching middle-agedness of his body insists like an ugly exclamation mark. Ferrell as the Typical American Male plays another risky game, as well: from the early benchmark of A Night at the Roxbury (1998) to Blades of Glory (with its incessant Pasolinian crotch shots), the subtext (as nerds love to say) is staggeringly gay. Almost every American Trash Comedy (from Pauly Shore onwards) plays with this cheeky inference, but Ferrell pedals it the hardest: witness the moment in Blades of Glory when his character, Chazz Michael Michaels, is reduced to wailing in song down the phone to his skating partner, Jimmy MacElroy (Jon Heder), these Aerosmoth lyrics: “I’d still miss you, baby, and I don’t want to miss a thing”.
Ferrell is the comedian of irony: endless, multiple, onion-peeling ironies. This is why a project like Bewitched does not work with him in it (all acting theory, as the unconventional theorist John O. Thompson once proposed, must go through the “commutation test”, the casting thought-experiment): he will never be a Cary Grant (or even an Adam Sandler), because no viewer can take the serious moment, the moment of conversion or declaration, seriously. We are always left waiting for the twist, the punchline, the delayed up-ending extra – just as we do (to just a slightly lesser extent) with Ben Stiller, himself an intriguing actor-director. We wait for the gesture or line or cinematic tweak that erases the dramatic-sentimental premise, scrambling all pretensions. In Talladega Nights, as in so many of his films, Ferrell quizzes himself as to how he should behave or perform in any given cliché moment: “Are we going to make out now? Because I’m really hard”. Ferrell can’t make it through all the masks, all the artifice, all the irony, to achieve a level of pathos, like Sandler (sometimes) can. But then again, why should he want to, really? Ferrell is partner to, and chief player in, a cinema which is all Pop Cinema cliché: cliché plots, cliché heroes, cliché resolutions. (On this plane, the formerly dramatic John C. Reilly is quickly rising to Ferrell’s rank, alongside him in Talladega Nights and Step Brothers, and in his very own showcase Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, 2007). Everything in these films exists to be mocked, all is pastiche (like the wonderful “Love Me Sexy” song of Semi-Pro): in a masterpiece of this strain of New American Comedy, Stiller’s Zoolander (2001), Ferrell as the fey but murderously scheming fashion designer Mugatu appears in an animated-extravaganza-cum-Eisensteinian-montage that parodies the dead-serious audiovisual brainwashing in Alan Pakula’s The Parallax View (1974); it’s the perfect abstraction of Ferrell as a screen figure.
I have some advice for Ferrell: he should play Ted Bundy. Serial killer of immense womanising charm, performing his own defence in court. They almost look alike: stern face, mad eyes, good head of hair. Yes, I know Robin Williams has travelled this route already, in One Hour Photo (2002) and Insomnia (2002): he showed how easily neurotic comedy slides into sociopathology; as did Moretti’s Bianca (1984) or – a rich example – Jerry Lewis in Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1983). Funny actors playing serious, taking serious roles: there are different ways to do it. Will plays it straight, almost deadpan in Stranger than Fiction, a touching, clever, rather underrated film; here, the exuberant comedian represses himself, acts someone stiff, awkward, robotic, the Company Man. Undergoing the Jeanne Dielman plot: life, with its unbidden errors and chance encounters, its slips and skids, splits him open, humanises him, in fact. But the smooth slickness of the film itself, as an object, with all its fiddly stylings (well judged and used) still plays to something resiliently inhuman and plastic in Ferrell. In Woody Allen’s odd experiment Melinda and Melinda (2004), this film poised weirdly between comic and dramatic versions of the same supposed destiny, the uncertainty of Allen’s ‘pitch and argument leaves Ferrell stranded between, precisely, the conventional acting plane (identification, immersion, empathy, involvement) which he may wish to reach, and the more brittle, artificial realms where he has already excelled. For the moment, he remains perfectly well at home in the New American Comedy (as the excellent Spanish critical-anthology Very Funny Things names it), as a raft of future projects (the finale of the Mediocre Trilogy, or Anchorman 2) makes clear. But his future may only be determined by what is called in the game of chess a Knight’s Move: some role, some concept or idea, some encounter or alchemy in the world of film, that is completely out of the box. Like Bill Murray achieved by getting together with Jim Jarmusch, or Lily Tomlin with Robert Altman, or Buster Keaton with Samuel Beckett …
© Adrian Martin May 2009