Just a few short years ago, Will Ferrell was the new king of comedy in Hollywood, lionized for his star turns in 2003’s Elf, 2004's Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and his tasty supporting roles in 2003’s Old School and 2004’s Starsky & Hutch.
His asking price quickly jumped to $20 million, and it was thought that no fee was too high, because he was box-office gold. He was the new Jim Carrey, and people were starting to wonder if he couldn’t be the new Tom Hanks, too, transitioning from comedy to drama without missing a beat.
Now, unfortunately, Ferrell has the stink of failure on him, and that’s a tough odor to get rid of in the here-today, gone-today (to steal a Chris Rock phrase) world of movie studios. He’s not the Will Ferrell of Old School and Elf anymore. He’s the Will Ferrell of Woody Allen’s Melinda and Melinda, the Bewitched remake, and Kicking & Screaming.
I haven’t given up hope yet. Sure, Ferrell became overexposed in the last few years, taking seemingly any job that was offered to him. But that’s what happens when the big checks start rolling in. You cash them as quickly as possible, because who knows when that pipeline will run dry? You’d do it, and so would I. The virtue of not selling out belongs only to the already rich. Of course, some actors never really recover from this phase of their career — Nicolas Cage comes to mind, and he’s wearing the long, stringy wig from Con Air.
Ferrell still has a chance to redeem himself, and that’s why I’m so excited to see Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. The film reunites him with his Anchorman director, Adam McKay, and though some may scoff, Ferrell was never better than he was in that movie. The problem with his string of duds was that Ferrell was asked to be something approaching a normal guy. I don’t want to see Ferrell trying to be a regular guy. I want him to be just this side of insane, stomping blindly through a make-believe land where he believes he is king and where plenty of other people believe it too.
For an audience to truly appreciate his gifts, Ferrell needs a character he can believe in against all odds, like Ron Burgundy, Anchorman’s clueless, chauvinistic center who says things like, “I’m very important. I have many leather-bound books and my apartment smells of rich mahogany.” That’s his best pickup line, and he’s absolutely sure it will work, delivering it in his booming Robert Goulet-like voice. It’s completely absurd, and totally perfect.
Talladega Nights, then, would seem (from the trailer, at least) to be the ideal film for Ferrell. His role as NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby is right in his wheelhouse, the kind of guy who goes through life absolutely sure that he’s the most important thing in it, with a coterie of hangers-on assuring him of that fact at every turn. Like Anchorman’s Burgundy, Bobby struggles with change, except this time, it isn’t a female anchor encroaching on his turf. It’s effeminate French Formula One racer Jean Girard (Da Ali G Show’s Sacha Baron Cohen), who’s out to take over NASCAR’s top spot. And like in Anchorman, McKay has assembled a strong supporting cast for Ferrell to play off of, including John C. Reilly, Gary Cole, Amy Adams, and Leslie Bibb. Ferrell doesn’t have to do all of the heavy lifting, just most of it.
So, like I said, he has a great chance to redeem himself with Talladega Nights. If he doesn’t, well, I’ll always have Anchorman. Thank God for DVDs.