Why Will Ferrell is not a star

Ron has a theory about Will Ferrell movies: that they work best when he's not trying to be the funniest thing in it...

I haven’t seen the new Will Ferrell film Semi-Pro as of the writing of this particular diatribe, but I don’t have to.  I’ve seen the trailer, and the trailer alone is enough to convince me that this will be the film that effectively kills Will Ferrell’s big-budget comedy star credibility.  While it might not be the best thing for his bank account, if Semi-Pro is as bad as I think it’s going to be, it’ll be a great thing for his career and the movie going public.  

I’ll be testing my formula out soon enough, as I plan on seeing Semi-Pro as soon as possible and giving a complete report, but it doesn’t grab me at all.  Just consider the fact that Will Ferrell is only good when he’s not the centre of attention.  Could it be possible that the only way to make a Ferrell film work is for other people, not Ferrell, to be funny?  

He’s never been the star of his own movie until Semi-Pro.  In every other film, he was part of a team and never the sole emphasis.  Even on Saturday Night Live, his iconic characters were never the center of attention.  His Spartan cheerleader was overshadowed by Cheri Oteri.  The cowbell sketch everyone loves?  That was all about Christopher Walken.  Celebrity Jeopardy?  Will Ferrell was the straight man to the various celebrity impersonators, especially Darrell Hammond’s Sean Connery.  When the focus was on Will, and he wasn’t doing an impression of President George W Bush, results were mixed at best.  The only good Roxbury Guys sketch involved Jim Carrey.  

Think about Anchorman.  Is Ron Burgundy the star?  Or does Ron Burgundy merely react to other people?  In spirit, Ron Burgundy is the straight man of the entire film, while Steve Carell, David Koechner, Paul Rudd, Christina Applegate, and even Mr. Supporting Cast Jack Black (another guy who can’t carry a film to save his life) do things to him that allow Burgundy to respond in big buffoon style.  He’s never the guy trying to be funny, he’s there for everyone else to bounce jokes off of.  

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Will Ferrell’s breakout film, Old School, was mostly about Owen Wilson’s character and Vince Vaughn’s sleazy electronics salesman.  Sure, I think Ferrell was great as Frank The Tank.  Who wouldn’t love a big fat drunk abusive character bossing around freaks, nerds, and the like?  But still, Frank was in small doses, and during the first half of the movie he’s a normal guy who just happens to get carried away.  He’s a supporting character at heart, despite his prominence.  Hell, even Patrick Cranshaw (the actor who played ancient pledge Blue) stole scenes from Will Ferrell, just by being old and wrestling with two topless girls in a kiddie pool of lubricant.  

Even on the Internet, in a site he’s one of the driving forces behind, Will Ferrell is funniest as a straight character.  The digital short The Landlord has become a legendary internet meme and really launched Funny Or Die.  Is the star of the skit Will Ferrell, or a foul-mouthed, abusive toddler girl?  

In every advertisement for Semi-Pro, who has been the star?  Right.  In every good movie he’s been in, Will Ferrell has never even been close to the focus of the film (except for possibly Elf, which was okay at best).  Meanwhile, Stranger Than Fiction was an abject failure, and Semi-Pro seems doomed to fail as well, with an anemic $15 million opening weekend in the States.  

I want to like Will Ferrell, I really do.  I think, in small doses, he’s very funny and capable of stealing scenes left and right, as he did in Zoolander.  But it’s obvious to me that he’s best only when working with a great supporting cast to take the pressure off him.  As much as I like Woody Harrelson, he’s not even shown in the trailers for Semi-Pro, and I seriously doubt that he can single-handedly save a movie that exists only as a vehicle for its Afro-headed star.