12 August 2010

Profiles: The Contrasting Roles of Will Ferrell

There are only a few auspicious weekends a year like this past one during which we get to see truly life-changing performances. These unique and separate performances of course come from one our generation's Greatest Thespians, William Ferrell. I disagree with the common notion that Will plays the exact same character in each of his films. There are some very subtle differences and nuances to each portrayal which in honour of The Other Guys (2010), I am diving headfirst into today. If you haven't gotten a chance to see this genuinely (with little sarcasm here actually) Non-Typical Ferrel performance, go see it - it's the funniest film of the year. Anyway, we'll start with Five of Will's Six Major Categories:

1) The Great Supporter

Many of Will's Best Roles have come as a supporting character. Oftentimes his characters may be too insane or just too one-noted to carry an entire film so he's wisely relegated to just that. One crazy joke or one recurring crazy dude. A lot of his early roles backing up fellow SNL Alum were like this (See: Superstar [1999], Dick [1999], The Ladies Man [2000], and a handful of Austin Powers flicks). In almost all of these, sometimes it's like Will is the only character who realises the shitty film he's in and he plays it up (Especially along with John Witherspoon in The Ladies Man. Wait, I love that movie). What makes some of these characters work is not always the insanity. Contrast Mugatu (loud, brash but still possibly the only sane one) in Zoolander (2001) with Marshal Willenholly (cowardly, uptight, straight-laced) in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001). Some deep range there, my friend.

When Will's roles started to get bigger he retained this ability to star in both films remaining as a large supporting player as well as providing cameos in friend's films and similar productions. As his star power rose, seeing him suddenly appear in a scene in Wedding Crashers (2005) or Starsky and Hutch (2004) became incredible mostly because of his continued willingness to go absolutely nuts for a joke. Will throws himself much more into Chazz Reinhold (Whats up with Will playing scumbags named Chazz? Admittedly it's a great scumbag name) than even Owen Wilson does playing that Owen Wilson character. He adds just as much as he needs to in The Producers (2005) without taking over the film and Frank the Tank in Old School (2003) is still one of his best efforts. Frank is trying to so hard to be good but that tends to deny who he is. Frank is like the typical Will Ferrel Lead Character trying desperately to not be a Will Ferrell Lead Character. What happens again is that he's allowed to just go nuts for laughs in the background while Luke Wilson provides the significant character arc and identification point audiences can revolve around. It's what makes Old School work so well.

Let's not forget some recent TV work, which works for the very same reason:

2) The Clown

What's pretty sweet about some of Will's films is that his two major films for children, Elf (2003) and Kicking & Screaming (2005), are both pretty enjoyable for fans of all ages. Contrast this with some of Steve Martin's and Eddie Murphy's really shitty kid's movies. Or Adam Sandler. Or Mike Myers. You get the picture.

Buddy the Elf is the epitome of innocence. Phil Weston in Kicking & Screaming is an sweet, quasi-Oedipal man who coffee transforms into a brutal dictator. Will throws himself so fully into these roles with unrelenting confidence and jokes that assault the senses until something breaks and we laugh. It's glourious.

3) The Buddy

There are three films in which Will is basically an equal player to another actor, two of which are pretty recent, which is telling where he thought his career might have been headed when his headlined comedies stalled. Indeed as other comedies starring the former sure-shots have spun their wheels recently bowing to more unknown fare (even compare Dinner for Schmucks [2010] to Grown Ups [2010] which made about three times as much, the ensemble comedies are the way to go these days. Of course the best example remains The Hangover [2009] against many other films that have failed with bigger star power). In this category Will offers us his fine work in A Night at the Roxbury (1998), Step Brothers (2008) and most recently, The Other Guys.

These are three incredibly different roles. Steve Butabi is a big thick-headed dumbass, Brennan Huff is the unequivocal man-child, much more immature rather than stupid and finally, really Det. Allen Gamble is a bright, mild-mannered accountant who'd rather keep to himself. Possibly as impressionable as Steve Butabi, but certainly not as fiercely independent as Brennan Huff. There are all these very subtle variations, on completely different themes really. What's interesting is that Will is equally known for playing the obnoxiously loud, boisterous character as well as the meek, quiet, naïve character.

4) The Overdone Shithead

When chatting about Willy's career there are two absolutely terrible films that deserve mention. These are of course the epic bombs Bewitched (2005) and Land of the Lost (2009). Both were remakes of classic television shows with horrendous supporting casts and writing teams along with a misplayed and supersaturated "classic" Ferrell character. That is to say, the screaming Man-Child.

Bewitched should actually get some props for attempting to strike original ground layering many meta-ideas onto its remake premise. Of course, to say that these ideas failed or were at least uninteresting is a gross understatement. Land of the Lost works on some 12-year old boy levels, but is generally immature, lazy and unfathomably poorly written and acted. It's when Will becomes too Will-like. Compare this role with him in The Other Guys a year later. He was steadily approaching the point when his public image was the one he projected on screen. As he continued to do this audiences got sick of him, especially after a decently heavy 2008 promoting both Semi-Pro and Step Brothers. The Other Guys allowed him to step out of this usual role and play against type (although the advertising lacked this appeal) which has helped its success critically and commercially.

5) The Good Actor

There are a slim handful of smaller films where Will has showcased some of his actual talent in a setting that isn't written off immediately. Okay, there's one film like that named Stranger Than Fiction (2006), which is anything but "Classic" Will. Again, he's developing that understated performance which really works here. What's different with this understatement is that there is no brat or screaming lunatic within Harold Crick. There's just a slightly less boring man inside a very boring man. Will's able to sell this with equal enthusiasm as his other bigger personas. I'll also mention Melinda and Melinda (2005) here, because as a Woody Allen film it's naturally supposed to be on a higher level than any other films.

Well, it's an alright film and Will is alright within it. It's notable only that he's trying to exist more in a real world other than one filled with Lumberjack Fantasies and vicious Newman on Newman cockfights. More on that to come in our next installment. Stay tuned for a look at all of Will's Leading Man-Child roles and how I'll contend their slight differences. Good night.

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