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Film | Opinion

Hear Me Out: Will Ferrell ruined modern comedies

OK, this is the piece I have been dreading. Most folks who live ordinary lives tend to overlook Will Ferrell’s inherently childish approach to comedy, favouring to watch his relentless screaming, as if re-enacting a form of primal scream therapy that will rid them of their fatigue.

This is not idle pontification: A screening of Anchorman will likely be met with yelps and shrieks, as many of the audiences ape the many multitudes of morons that parade the screen, in an attempt to push the comedy genre along. Although titillating, the films are then presented through a DVD format, where the excruciating banality of the films can be explored in more intimate detail. In many ways, a Will Ferrell comedy is the very apex of the sufferance that leads to release.

Ferrell may have held the best promise of his generation of Saturday Night Live performers, a measurement that veered beyond the fart gags and toilet zingers that populate the current iteration, but presented something that was more topical, and rippling with social commentary. The much-mocked “cowbell” sketch was in fact a damning indictment on the devaluation of percussionists in the field of rock, allowing Ferrell to unleash his inner maniac through a series of striking lunges at the instrument beside him.

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Now, nearly 30 years later, the fatigue and childish infectiousness has proven prophetic, as Ferrell’s metier is a collection of badly written vignettes, that aches for a writer of some talent to bring out the pathos that is hidden in the script. Or, maybe they should just recast the lead, because Ferrell is a terrible actor.

I would call him wooden, but that would be an insult to the material that lights up a fire during the damp, cold British winters that stand as our time to gorge on endless repeats of Doctor Who. He isn’t even funny, even if some of his ideas are, and he’s definitely the worst thing about the Eurovision film, flitting between a hackneyed Scandinavian accent and a sullied American one.

No one believed for a second that someone with Melissanthi Mahut’s face or figure would find Ferrell’s Lars Erickssong – a middle aged keyboardist skiving off his father, played unflappably by Pierce Brosnan – attractive, and the film made the curious decision to showcase a love story that made Rachel McAdams, nobody’s definition of a quality actor, seem adroit in her attempt to muster some sense of integrity in the story.

And yet it was a far more appealing film to the genuinely dreadful Step Brothers, released 12 years earlier, which seemed determined to waste the admirable talents of lead actors Mary Steenburgen and John C. Reilly. Reilly was too good an actor to be permanently scarred by his association to Ferrell, although it is telling that his efforts in Stan & Ollie were widely praised, much as his performance in Holmes and Watson was universally panned.

A cynical reader might suggest that the absence of Ferrell and the inclusion of Steve Coogan – now enjoying a creative second wind, following the critical acclaim of Philomena – led Reilly to greater heights, but there’s no denying that the Sherlock spoof was just another addition in the long line of dreadful pieces in a body of work that highlighted Ferrell’s abilities to scream like a ferret or an animal of an equally anodyne nature.

And yet Ferrell remains an inexplicable audience favourite, who seemingly gravitate toward his one-note approach to comedy, whether it’s detailing the racial inequalities within the American continent (Get Hard), or exploring the intricacies of parenthood in a more emancipated decade (Daddy’s Home).

Indeed, Ferrell’s ability to shout, pout and throw himself into a series of embarrassing situations has earmarked him as the modern-day Eric Idle, a comedian of low repute, dangling onto the past achievements of his younger, more incendiary, self, desperately aching for credibility in an industry that might be better off forgetting them.

But at least we’ll always have that ‘Cowbell’ sketch, typifying the buffoonery and baffling theatrics of rock in a familiar environment. In one way, the scene is emblematic of what Ferrell would become: Something akin to an ape, banging his drum, while his contemporaries and colleagues, ergo the real artists, make an impact on the world around them.

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