I worry sometimes about Will Ferrell. His newest film, Blades of Glory (242 screens) was another critical and financial hit, so that's not the problem. He has also managed to concretely establish his own comic persona, one that seems remarkably adaptable to different kinds of movies, so that's not the problem either. The main problem is that he has made so many movies in so little time; since Old School and Elf in 2003, he has appeared in thirteen movies. To the public eye, he's refining his craft and expanding his repertoire, but in private I suspect he's panicking, or perhaps obsessively searching for something.
I met Ferrell once, and we had a very revealing talk. I'm not claiming to know him, but he told me something that I suspect most movie stars go through; they wonder if they really deserve this kind of treatment and success. They suspect that, at any moment, they'll be discovered and exposed. He could be afraid, if he stops working for even a short time, that someone will fire him from his job. But in just a few years, Ferrell's unique, irreplaceable comic persona has fully emerged. In our interview, he told me that he used to be a field goal kicker for his school football team, which required him to do one task extremely well; it took a serious amount of concentration. He said that he discovered a private place wherein he could retreat during his kicks that he more or less still uses today for his performances.
In Elf, as in some of his early "Saturday Night Live" sketches, he found comedy by channeling the hopes and desires of a small girl into the body of a big man. In Anchorman, Talladega Nights and Blades of Glory, he expanded his behavior to that of a child, of either sex (those three movies were very much about boys and boys' behavior together). Even in his more "serious" attempts like Winter Passing, he plays a man who dreams of being a rock star, but in a childlike, hopeful way. In effect, Ferrell crosses an untarnished innocence and hope with the reality of his grown up world, without a stitch of irony or commentary. The result is unfailingly funny. (He's often the funniest thing in the movie, i.e. Starsky & Hutch or The Producers).
In my short review for Blades of Glory, I compared Ferrell to the silent era comedian Harry Langdon, who also channeled a small child for his performances in films like The Strong Man (1926) and Long Pants (1927). Langdon, however, was more like a child trapped in an adult's body. Ferrell's achievement is quite a bit more complex. In Langdon's era, boys grew up to be men, but today, boys grow up to be big boys. Even at thirty or forty, life for most men today is about games, enjoyment, adventures, excitement, being messy, eating pleasurably, and general immaturity. I've spoken about this subject with a few other filmmakers; it's difficult to find actors today who actually look like grown men; most actors in their forties still look like boys.
So Ferrell's persona taps into a certain unspoken feeling in the air today. To a lesser extent, his Blades of Glory co-star Jon Heder did the same thing in Napoleon Dynamite, but Heder has been unable to repeat the trick as well as Ferrell has. In short, Ferrell could be one of the great screen comics in history, rivaled today only by Bill Murray. But here's where the trouble comes in. It takes a lot of work, and a lot of thinking to maintain and sustain a comedy career. So far Ferrell has demonstrated either remarkable luck or skill in choosing his projects; either that, or he magically molds his written parts into his own characters.
If Ferrell underthinks his career, he could wind up playing the childlike card long after it wears thin. If he overthinks his career, he could veer too far away from laughter. During this past Oscar broadcast, he performed a pretty funny song with Jack Black and John C. Reilly, about how comedians never get Oscar nominations. Many comedians start to kill themselves trying to get one, taking on one "serious" movie after another. Sometimes recognition comes, as in the case of Robin Williams or Roberto Benigni, and sometimes it doesn't, as in the case of Steve Martin, Jim Carrey or Eddie Murphy (who recently received his first Oscar nomination and apparently stormed out of the ceremonies after losing). If Ferrell actually meant the words he was singing in that song, we may have some unbearable movies (like Jakob the Liar or The Majestic) coming our way soon. Instead, let's hope he sticks to the same road, laughing all the way to the bank.