When George W. Bush first appears on screen in Adam McKay’s new movie Vice, it’s strange to see him played by Sam Rockwell. This isn’t because Rockwell is miscast—in fact, he’s perfectly cast and quite good in the movie, capturing the empty, convivial bravado of our 43rd president in just a few scenes. It’s just a little disorienting to see McKay skewering Bush without Will Ferrell present.
Ferrell and McKay came up at Saturday Night Live together, and while neither of them stuck around for Bush’s first full term—Ferrell left in 2002, while McKay departed even earlier—they made a lasting satirical impression, one they revisited years later in a manner more barbed than, say, Dana Carvey breaking out his George Bush Senior bit. In 2009, just after the younger Bush left office, McKay and Ferrell revived W. in You’re Welcome, America, a one-man show on Broadway that was a little darker and angrier than what they were allowed to do on SNL, pointing toward McKay’s future as a more explicitly political filmmaker.
Before McKay even made that turn, Bush made an ideal Ferrell/McKay character; they’ve both long been fascinated by what they’ve described as the “mediocre American man” and the inflated, unearned confidence he carries around with him. Ferrell doesn’t always play an incompetent blowhard for McKay, but a sense of American masculinity running amok, leaving patches of absurdism or even surrealism in its wake, powers Talladega Nights (even featuring a riff on Ferrell’s Bush voice), Step Brothers, The Other Guys, and the Anchorman movies. This isn’t the only satirical territory that the pair explores in their five films together, but it does provide the roadmap.
That sense of direction is sometimes lacking in the movies they make apart. As if engineered for maximum contrast, Ferrell has a broad comedy coming out the same day as Vice: Holmes and Watson re-teams him with his Talladega and Step Brothers cohort John C. Reilly, just as the Daddy’s Home movies arranged a reunion between Ferrell and his Other Guys co-star Mark Wahlberg without McKay in charge. Even their separated movies don’t really represent a splintered partnership; Ferrell is credited as a producer on Vice, and McKay has the same credit on Holmes. It’s also possible that their most recent movie as director, star, and co-writers, 2013's Anchorman: The Legend Continues, pushed them about as far as they could go as a close team, bringing them to a logical endpint. But despite McKay’s Oscar for co-writing The Big Short, the pair’s respective work since 2013 hasn’t reached the dizzying heights of their best films together.
It’s fitting that the Anchorman sequel serves as a (hopefully temporary) swan song for the duo, because the original Anchorman was their proving ground. McKay had never directed a feature film, and while Ferrell had appeared in several hit movies, his biggest successes were an ensemble comedy (Old School) and a seasonal family film (Elf) where he gave funny performances that nonetheless pushed his unusual comic energy, his boisterous sense of male panic, toward the mainstream. Anchorman, loosely chronicling the difficult adjustment of San Diego news-reader Ron Burgundy to the women’s movement of the 1970s, is nearly all madness, bursting through the familiar frameworks that dominate Ferrell’s earlier hits. In terms of pure laughs per minute, it’s probably the best McKay/Ferrell film, and went from minor hit to beloved sensation in a matter of a few years.
It’s also so improvisational and unmoored from strict narrative structure that an entire 90-minute side movie was cobbled together out of discarded subplots and alternate takes. Wake Up, Ron Burgundy works as evidence of McKay’s craft as a comedy director even in a rougher form, not because it’s a coherent movie (it’s not) but because it demonstrates an ability to self-edit, even when that means casting aside some great material, all while still preserving a freewheeling sensibility. Out went a subplot about an anarchist criminal group menacing San Diego, and an action-packed climax calling back to the news team’s history together in Vietnam; in came a simpler confrontation between Burgundy and a bear at the zoo. McKay and Ferrell seem to have correctly intuited that an ultimately smaller scale for Anchorman would give them license to go bigger and weirder in fewer but more crucial moments.
The same is true of Ferrell’s performance. Many of his contemporaries in movie comedy tend to pick one of two approaches in leading roles: Either insist on performing the whole show, sucking up oxygen from almost anyone else on screen (like Jim Carrey), or hang back and react to the cast of more cartoonish weirdos surrounding you (like Ben Stiller or, in many of his 2000s films, Adam Sandler). Ferrell rarely cedes the screen like Sandler (few can), but his Saturday Night Live experience also leaves him well-practiced in the art of sharing the spotlight and working as a utility player when needed. So while he does play some masterful solos as Burgundy—both literal (on the jazz flute) and figurative (when he hits rock bottom, grows a ratty beard, and drinks milk in the stifling heat)—he also steps back and lets Burgundy sound uncharacteristically reasonable at crucial moments.
There are moments later in the Ferrell/McKay filmography where they lean a little too heavily on characters pointing out the absurdity of something that has just happened. But thematically, the tactic makes sense; their movies are about recognizable aspects of American life pushed to distorted, sometimes discomfiting extremes. That’s especially true of Step Brothers, where Ferrell ups the neuroses and tamps down the bravado to play Brennan, a 40-ish loser who meets his match with fellow arrested-development victim Dale (Ferrell’s best scene partner, John C. Reilly).
Step Brothers, like most of the Ferrell/McKay comedies, is produced by Judd Apatow, so the obvious framework is a narrative familiar to other Apatow-directed and Apatow-produced comedies, where a funny, irresponsible man or group of men experiences a belated coming of age. But Step Brothers distorts this concept into something weirder and, frankly, creepier. As plenty have pointed out, Brennan and Dale aren’t arrested adolescents in the manner of characters from Knocked Up or The 40-Year-Old Virgin, but something closer to a nasty riff on body-swap comedies. They’re ill-behaved 10-year-old boys who have somehow made it to middle age with their preadolescent sensibilities intact.
This characterization, as well as the caricatures of more conventionally adult characters in the movie, turns Step Brothers into an omnidirectional satire aimed at both the indulgences of stunted men and the respectability that awaits them when they finally decide to grow up. Ferrell is ideally suited for this tricky task; he’s equally convincing as a bickering child and an everyman puzzled by the machismo and aggression of his eventual corporate-bro office job. One of Ferrell’s funniest modulations comes in an early, tense dinner scene where Brennan and Dale size each other up, glare at each other, and make pitiful attempts to intimidate and insult each other.
At times, Step Brothers seems like an entire movie designed around McKay’s fondness for dinner-table scenes, present in almost all of his Ferrell comedies and probably most famously expressed in the scene where Ricky Bobby says grace with his family early in Talladega Nights. McKay’s tendency to engage in these kinds of improv-heavy dialogue scenes is anathema for some comedy fans, who lament the lack of tight scripting or visual gags. (Just take a look at this instructive and insightful but somewhat prescriptive tribute to the visual comedy of Edgar Wright that made the rounds a few years ago.) Encouraging improvisation means that scenes need a lot of coverage to capture ad-libs and reactions, which in turn discourages elaborate visual set-ups—hence the utility of McKay’s dinner tables, where it’s only natural to be able to capture every member of the cast with relatively simple blocking.
But setting aside that McKay’s movies do have well-executed visual gags—like the camera holding on Dwayne Johnson and Samuel L. Jackson as they take a slow-motion leap off a building in The Other Guys, or the cut to Steve Carell standing and laughing with the derisive enemy news team in Anchorman—there are other ways to direct comedy well. His dinner table gatherings, anchored by Ferrell, are little symphonies of establishing character through jokes, perfect details pinging off of big, weird gestures. There’s also something distinctly American about them, whether it’s Ricky Bobby presiding over a branded fast-food feast in Talladega or Ferrell’s nebbishy cop sharing the deadpan mundanity of how he met his unaccountably foxy wife (Eva Mendes) over a meal with his hotheaded partner. McKay and Ferrell’s dinner tables are a place where families express their truest (and often weirdest) feelings and aspirations, a caricature of our homey self-image. I don’t know if McKay worked on the old SNL bit where Ferrell and Ana Gasteyer would preside over a tense, silverware-clacking, outburst-heavy dinner with their hostile teenage daughter, but the dinner scenes in their films feel like an outgrowth of sketch comedy in the best, most productive way possible.
When McKay, Ferrell, and their colleagues are improvising, they may be limited in what kind of visual humor they can wring from the scene, but they also stay rooted in the aims of those scenes, and in the weird extremes of their characters. (What sounds like tangents are often extremely telling.) Both The Big Short and Vice, in which McKay splices his freewheeling comic style with Oliver Stone-style grab-bag polemics, have some of the director’s trademark looseness, and Vice especially is willing to go big and weird for a laugh. But (presumably) without as much improvisation and scene-shaping from his actors, McKay’s energy seems to redirect elsewhere. He fusses with plenty of scenes via cutaways, stock footage, on-screen notations, and other trappings that would feel more at home in a Michael Moore film. In both movies, this interferes with his storytelling a lot more than a willingness to let scenes play out a little longer to fit in some improv. Ad-libbing has gained a reputation as the ultimate comic indulgence, but for really skilled improvisers working from a sound script, it’s not just half-assed riffing.
Like McKay, Ferrell has made good movies that don’t seem to have much improv; plenty of his more conventional comedies have their share of laughs. But in a movie like Daddy’s Home, Ferrell feels constrained by his own vehicle. He seems like too much of a team player to showboat his way through a would-be family comedy, especially if McKay isn’t there throwing out alternate jokes for everyone—and of course, improv isn’t a cure-all that can rescue any half-assed comedy from mediocrity. Ferrell is also capable of giving good performances, both comic and not, for other directors, but McKay seems to have a unique understanding of what his star can do.
That understanding is put to particularly good use in The Other Guys, which may be the least-heralded of their five movies together (with the possible exception of the expectations-freighted Anchorman sequel). But it features one of Ferrell’s best performances, going against his Ron Burgundy/Ricky Bobby type as Allen, a nerdy cop happy to do paperwork and avoid dangerous work in the field—where, it’s implied, the action-comedy heroics of the swaggering Danson and Highsmith (Dwayne Johnson and Sam Jackson) incur millions of dollars in property damage to fight relatively unimportant crimes.
The blustery figure prone to impotent shouting in The Other Guys is Allen’s partner Terry (Wahlberg), who chafes at being consigned to B-squad status and obsessively seeks to blame any crimes they encounter on high-level drug dealers. It’s another example of Ferrell sharing the spotlight—it’s one of Wahlberg’s best performances, too—while still finding dimensional comedy in smaller gestures, like Allen’s insistently dorky over-explanation of why he finds a corny “FBI” (for “Female Body Inspector”) coffee mug so funny.
The guys wind up investigating a criminal conspiracy that involves costly and harmful financial crimes, rather than a typical movie cartel or supervillain, and it’s easy to see McKay eyeing the kind of material that would later win him an Oscar with The Big Short. It’s more or less a given that The Other Guys is funnier than The Big Short, as the latter is less concerned with comic set pieces or quotable lines about a group of randy homeless men getting it on in a Prius. Less immediately obvious: The Other Guys is also a better satire, sneakier and smarter in showing how the mindless pursuit of American exceptionalism can become an absurd distraction while the world around us crumbles. Ferrell’s Allen has a semblance of a traditional arc where he learns to assert himself slightly more, but this assertion is still in service of his legal-wonk ideals, dictating that financial crimes ought to get a lot more attention than drug busts.
Together with Talladega Nights, a more direct goof on American exceptionalism (“If you’re not first, you’re last,” says Ricky Bobby, who receives copious money from corporate sponsors to drive a car in a circle very fast), The Other Guys represents McKay and Ferrell at their most disciplined, with Anchorman and Step Brothers indulging their wilder instincts. Anchorman: The Legend Continues attempts to merge the two approaches, with mixed results. It’s both more pointedly contemporary than the first movie in its savaging of 24-hour cable news, and as whacked out as the original film, complete with a tangent where a young boy sings an impassioned hymn to his pet shark. It’s very funny, but oddly scattered for a movie that seems to want to impose a little more order on its universe.
McKay and Ferrell are both too talented to have their careers rest entirely on whether they continue to make the occasional silly comedy together; Vice and The Big Short are worthwhile movies, and for that matter, I’ll go to bat for some of Ferrell’s other comedies, including Land Of The Lost and Blades Of Glory, as well as his general willingness to follow his comic muse into weird side projects or cameos. But there’s a rich, satisfying irony in their teamed-up ability to satirize mediocrity disguising itself as exceptionalism, all while utilizing an oft-debased form: the American comedy vehicle. There are plenty of notable actor/director comedy teams through the ages, but most successful contemporary mainstream versions—Tom Shadyac directing Jim Carrey, or Dennis Dugan (or whoever else) directing Adam Sandler—have a graceless yes-man vibe, an actual George W. Bush sensibility contrasted with Ferrell and McKay’s spoofing of same. In their best smart-dumb comedies, part of the joke is how brilliant they can be.