There is no sound in American culture sadder than that barely perceptible rattle when a comic talent passes his moment of glory. For Will Ferrell, who has reigned as the past decade’s great comic talent of mainstream American comedy, that moment of passing may be at hand.
The moment can easily be missed. Talent doesn’t disappear overnight. But for all of the great comedians who have dominated their time, sooner or later the time comes when they can no longer effortlessly hold an audience through sheer force of will, and a search for a second act begins.
The Will Ferrell seen in The Campaign is not perceptibly any slower in his delivery, any less able to dazzle with his trademark arrogant dumb guy moments. But nonetheless, there is something missing from the film and from the performance that viewers could count on in earlier roles. The shtick is there, but little more. Like all great comedians, Ferrell had an ability to elevate indifferent material with his very presence, a cameo by him could transform an entire project, so great was the heat he projected. But that heat is not to be felt here.
The Campaign is indeed composed of fairly indifferent material. In the past, however, Ferrell brought to such movies an off-kilter, unpredictable lunacy that otherwise uninspired projects sprang to life. In The Campaign, the off-kilter lunacy feels all too rote. A few laughs are to be had, but none especially memorable or transcendent. Overall, the films feels like Ferrell phoned in, which is a creeping feeling that has been gathering about his work of late, and sadly, a sign that the turning point may be upon us.
There is no force more powerful in entertainment than a comic actor at his or her prime. Comedians swinging at the height of their talents forge a connection with their audiences more potent than any other link between entertainers and the public. When a comedian has built a fan base, those people will follow them across molten lava, through the dreariest projects Hollywood can create. Jerry Lewis through the 1950s, for instance, reigned as the biggest star of them all. More recently, comedians such as Tom Hanks to Jim Carrey have had their moments when they could do no wrong, and turn so-so films like Bruce Almighty and Turner & Hooch into mega-hits. Even Pauly Shore, once he connected with a fanbase, was able to get them to turn out for Son in Law, Jury Duty, and In the Army Now. Like no one else in Hollywood, a mainstream comic star is money in the bank for the studio backing them.
But for all these stars, eventually their moment passes, and the question became what do you do next? The default template for this was set by the Marx Brothers. After their explosion of anarchic comic genius in a string of six incredible films (running from The Cocoanuts to A Night at the Opera), the Marx Brothers Inc. became too big to permit the artistic recklessness of their earlier works. The anarchy was slowly reined in. The subversive, Dadaist voice became more wacky uncle than bull in the china shop. The rough edges were smoothed over, the laughs grew smaller and smaller until by the time of Love Happy in 1949, interest in the team had all but evaporated and it was time to simply close up shop on the film careers of the greatest comedians the sound era had seen.
For decades, this was the route followed by screen comics—a slow decline to obsolescence—until in the 1980s Tom Hanks showed comedians a new way: abandoning ship on a comic career that was showing the first signs of creakiness and rebranding as a Serious Dramatic Actor. (A title that Hanks has held since.) Natural as the transition sounds, however, it has proven easier to say than to pull off, as attested by Jim Carrey’s repeated vain attempts to rebuild his career in the comedy category, and outside, too.
While wildly beloved and appreciated, Will Ferrell was never the box office goliath that Jim Carrey was in his heyday. Only one of his films—Elf in 2003—has passed $200 million in box office worldwide. (Hangover II, in comparison, has grossed $581 million across the globe.) Ferrell’s greatest claim to a spot in the comedy pantheon—2004’s inspired Anchorman—was only a modest success on its initial release, becoming a cult phenomenon largely in its afterlife. His public following since his 2003 breakthrough with Old School has generally been solid and more-than-respectable, but never spectacular. While operating at the broadest level, his skills were always a bit too unpredictable, too quirky. Ferrell at his best has invented characters like Peter Sellers’s Inspector Clouseau, creations of unlimited pomposity that is constantly undermined by their own limited intellects.
Of late, the never-spectacular but previously steady box office has begun to wane, and Ferrell seems to be looking for his escape pod, and as he searches for it, the comedic end of his empire is clearly suffering. Between the middling box office successes of Step-Brothers and The Other Guys, both of which topped $100 million, came the failures of Semi-Pro and Land of the Lost. Earlier this year, we saw the first Ferrell comedy in years to fail to open entirely with Casa de Mi Padre, which grossed a horrific $5 million in its run. But worse still have been Ferrell’s attempts to follow the Hanks trail into drama. Stranger Than Fiction and Everything Must Go each met with mild critical approval, and Ferrell did nothing to embarrass himself in either, but if the career goal was to demonstrate a public appetite for a noncomedic Will Ferrell, neither film advanced that cause in the least.
Meanwhile, as seen in The Campaign, yawning through it seems the driving principle of his comic work these days. The latter-day Ferrell is generally best classified as Costume Comedy, the genre consumed with cracking itself up by putting on funny facial hair or period leisure suits. Ferrell’s white-haired car salesman character in Eastbound and Down has been the low point along this path, a part where the entire joke seems to be, Look, it’s Will Ferrell in a crazy wig! Coming up from Saturday Night Live as he did, where costume comedy has always held enormous sway, the genre has been part of Ferrell’s repertoire from the beginning, but in the past his energy always took the joke to another level, as in the quintessential costume comedy, Blades of Glory. These days, the costume seems to be the joke’s beginning and its end.
The fall may not be irreversible. The Campaign is not a still birth, merely just about what you expected. The talent is not gone. The instinct and the intelligence are still there. But when an actor phones it in on what has already become familiar, the decline can be quick. Ferrell needs another irresistible moment if he is going to reverse the tide.