Will Ferrell: A Nice Bunch of Guys

PPH @ LFF 2010

By accident rather than design, the last two films I’ve watched have both featured the mercurial talents of the manic-yet-melancholic man-bear Will Ferrell.  Firstly in the absurd buddy comedy The Other Guys, and then in the upcoming drama Everything Must Go, based on the short story ‘Why Don’t You Dance?’ by Raymond Carver.

In EMG, Ferrell stars as Nick Halsey, an alcoholic salesman who, having lost his job and his wife on the same day, finds that all of his belongings have been strewn on the lawn. Forming a tentative bond with a lonely, overweight neighbourhood kid, Halsey resolves to stage a 5-day yard sale in front of his house, initially borne of a bloody-minded obstinacy to stay put, and eventually to purge his demons and advance tentatively toward a new beginning.

The key themes of memories, loss and new starts are nothing new for an American indie, and neither are the burnished, gentle tones of the cinematography, insistent bursts of sad acoustic guitar or drifting evocations of suburban disquiet and disillusionment.  There is a gentle humour at work, occasionally tinged by a more scabrous edge (one explicit yet incongrous scene pitches for Lynchian suburban hell, but just feels wrong).

Laura Dern, appearing and appealing in one scene, is underused, and Rebecca Hall’s lonely, pregnant new neighbour is really used as little more than a device to bring us to the conclusion that Ferrell’s egregious externalisation is a mere variation on the rest of the world’s desire to keep their troubles behind closed doors.  However, the melancholy vibe is pervasive and Ferrell, with his sad eyes, furrowed brow and gently imposing presence, gives the film real heart. With his relentless drinking, morally questionable past and salesmanship patter, he appears to have walked in from Steely Dan’s world of dissolute drifters, lapsed family men, addicts and schemers; a Deacon Blues or Cousin Dupree for our times. I wouldn’t be surprised if the film’s title was taken straight from the duo’s 2003 album.

In stark contrast to the sombre tale of EMG, Ferrell is back to his usual tricks in The Other Guys, an unholy mixture of broad sight gags, surreal touches, genre spoofery, pop culture reference overload (Michael Keaton’s hapless Captain single-handedly mentions TLC more in this film than the rest of the world has in the last 5 years) and explosive action sequences.   Tonally, the film is all over the place, and is notably weighed down from about midway-on by a tiresome and convoluted (if at least topical, and perhaps laudable for such a film) plot about major-level financial misdemeanors.

However, when the film is funny, it is genuinely hilarious – see the silent fight at a funeral, and the inexplicable deaths of a pair of turbo-cops played by Samuel L Jackson and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. An expository subplot which details Ferrell’s accidental graduation to becoming a pimp at college, although stolen straight from an episode of South Park, gives Ferrell the opportunity to revert to his unhinged best – although it falls short of his finest ever moment on screen (Find me a better phone booth scene than this Anchorman panic attack).

Ferrell gets to pal up with Mark Wahlberg, who is here in good form; wired, beady-eyed and intense a la I Heart Huckabees, although every time I see Steve Coogan slumming it in Hollywood (here as Ershon – not Enron – Ershon, the Ponzi scheming bad guy), I yearn for a return to the days of prime Partridge. I guess his own bank balance is doing OK for it…

The lasting impression from both films is Ferrell; a sad clown, a maniac, a savant, a broken man, and a genuinely versatile actor. I wonder – I really do wonder – if, like Joaquin Phoenix in I’m Still Here, the Academy might come calling for Ferrell’s performance in EMG . More nuanced than his previously best-known straight-faced work in Stranger Than Fiction, Ferrell lifts up a film that might well have languished in the hands of a lesser talent.

Everything Must Go will screen in October at The 54th BFI London Film Festival

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