Will Ferrell & Adam McKay: Comedic Genius

Comedy is a challenging form. For every hundred attempts made at producing something that might be considered funny to a commercially significant audience, only a dozen might be lucky/good enough to succeed. Of those that do succeed, only a minuscule number prove to be worthy enough to produce laughs more than a few years on.

The reasons that even successful films don’t stand the test of time are many, but can most commonly be broken down to these two:

  1. The references and comedic styling of the film might be too tied to its respective cultural circumstances to be relevant or acceptable to later audiences. An old comedy might be perceived to be out-of-date because it is boring, represents values that are now considered offensive (e.g. racist and/or sexist) or simply culturally alien.
  2. Today’s stars might sometimes end up becoming tomorrow’s hacks, soiling retrospective reception of their earlier work. Adam Sandler comes to mind.

There is a comedic duo who I hope and believe will avoid such a fate, at least in the foreseeable future. Adam McKay and Will Ferrell have together amassed a body of work that, were it to end right now, would still be worthy of consideration as one of the great comedic collaborations in cinematic history. The reason – they have managed to produce a consistently brilliant series of films that deal brutally and truthfully, in every instance, with the failings of masculine identity in the modern world. Sounds a little strong? Let’s take a look:

  1. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)
  2. Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006)
  3. Step Brothers (2008)
  4. The Other Guys (2010)

All four of these films deal with men (in the loosest and most literal sense of the word) struggling desperately to maintain/restore/create pathetic and out-dated facades of masculine strength and power. All of them are eventually allowed to do so in the most savagely ironic way possible, with conclusions that deliberately obfuscate the narrative by granting these men the impossible. In other words, we laugh at the outrageous and disgraceful expectations that these male characters have of life and those around them, and then we laugh even harder as their expectations are met in an alternate comedic universe where the reprehensible are rewarded rather than punished.

The result is that when men watch these films, they will more often than not find themselves secretly identifying with the brutish and laughable traits of these lost male souls. Whether it be the misogynistic sense of entitlement that the central characters of these films possess (the belief/fantasy shared by these characters that they are imbued with an innate primal masculinity and alpha-ness that should be respected and admired) or their tendencies to descend into infantile tantrums when this sense of entitlement is interfered with, men will inevitably find themselves seeing a magnified version of their own masculine identity. I can only presume that women see these films similarly, except that they are generally the witnesses rather than participants in these male role-plays.

Although I could write a book on this topic alone, let’s take a single scene from each of these films as a brief example of the kind of thing I’m talking about.

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)

The narrative is simple enough. Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) is a highly successful news anchor in the 1970s, whose all-male team of misogynistic newsmen consider it a personal affront when, for the first time in the history of the network, Veronica Corningstone, a female news presenter (Christina Applegate), joins the crew. A relationship is soon enough established between Ron and Veronica, and the narrative/comedy is driven by the tensions between their romantic involvement and their conflicting career aspirations.

In this scene, Burgundy takes Corningstone out to a bar with a live band. It only takes a few minutes before Burgundy is invited to belt out a Jazz performance on his flute to an ecstatic crowd and an impressed Corningstone. The ultimate male fantasy (especially for those without musical talent) of casually delivering a virtuoso performance to an adoring crowd is parodied beautifully here.

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006)

The rise and fall and rise of Ricky Bobby (Will Ferrell), a brilliant stock car racer whose hedonistic and obnoxious lifestyle is interrupted when a gay French Formula One driver, Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen), ends his glorious run. Bobby drops out of the game, and his best friend (John C. Reilly) takes his family away from him. Of course, with the help of his deadbeat father (and fellow failed man), Bobby climbs to the top once more.

This scene details the emasculating first encounter between Bobby and Girard. Bobby’s macho image is quickly shattered in the face of his feminine nemesis (only to be reclaimed later, of course).

Step Brothers (2008)

Two thirty-something males, Brendan (Will Ferrell) and Dale (John C. Reilly) have lived an infantile existence with their respective single parents… until now. When their parents get married, these two tragic individuals war it out with each other to see who will be the alpha man-child. Soon enough the two unite to fight a much larger threat, Brendan’s highly successful younger brother Derek (Adam Scott).

In this scene, we see an early encounter between the newly united step-brothers and Derek. Brendan and Dale are hanging out in there official man-cave, the tree house, only to have Derek invade their space to mock them and brag of his own manly superiority, until the step-brothers strike back.

The Other Guys (2010)

Two failed/mediocre cops (Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg) have the opportunity to take on a big case when the two local alpha-male super cops (The Rock & Samuel L. Jackson) die in a freak accident.

This scene actually features the death of the aforementioned super cops, itself a beautiful parody of the macho cop movie.

James Curnow is an obsessive cinephile and the owner and head editor of CURNBLOG. His work as a film journalist has been published in a range of print and digital publications, including The Guardian, Broadsheet and Screening the Past. James is currently working through a PhD in Film Studies, focused primarily on issues of historical representation in Contemporary Hollywood cinema.

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