“Where There’s a Will…”
By Elbert Ventura
Blades of Glory
Dir. Josh Gordon and Will Speck, U.S., Paramount
Around these rarefied parts, the following statement almost feels like a confession: No other performer in the last decade has made me laugh out loud more than Will Ferrell. It doesn't mean he's the most incisive (Stephen Colbert), most fearless (Sacha Baron Cohen), or even the most inspired (Ricky Gervais, '01-'03) comedian of the last few years. But if we go by sheer numbers and volume—how often and how loudly I’ve laughed—it's Ferrell, hands down. With an impressive array of characters and caricatures that single-handedly kept SNL watchable, he carved out a comedic sensibility that has become almost too familiar: equal parts obnoxious machismo, cocksure ignorance, fearless exhibitionism, and pop culture savvy. His post-TV career has been more of a mixed bag. Inspired supporting parts (Old School) mingle with irritating would-be vehicles (Elf)—and we're not even getting to his turn toward seriousness (Winter Passing, Stranger Than Fiction).
For my money, the only Ferrell headliner that has held up is the one that seems the purest product of his sensibility: Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. Less a movie than a revue—a genre that can be traced back to the Marx Brothers through early Woody Allen and the Steve Martin/Carl Reiner films—Anchorman has proven to be endlessly rewatchable despite being, frankly, a lousy film. But pedestrian filmmaking is par for the course for the genre (has anybody rewatched Sleeper for its mise-en-scene?). The movie’s success lies in its wide-open sensibility. Little more than rickety scaffolding on which inspired performers could strut their stuff, Anchorman was the perfect vehicle for Ferrell's pop absurdism. And, while it featured the requisite smattering of Frat Pack appearances (Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson, Vince Vaughn), any resemblance to that tired act was merely superficial. Anchorman was aggressively weird and wacky, uninterested in pandering to mainstream sensibilities.
Marketed to death in the past few weeks, Blades of Glory seems preordained to be a sure hit, which fills the Ferrell acolyte with dread. In Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby, Ferrell's humor was dulled for public consumption. What could've been a droll critique of Applebee's America ended up pandering to it, not least in the form of Sacha Baron Cohen's mincing gay French race car driver, a play-it-both-ways post-PC portrayal that white hats could safely laugh at. The bad news is that Blades of Glory is in the same vein, a lazily executed mainstream comedy that keeps both eyes on opening weekend. The good news is that it's consistently funnier and more inventive than Talladega Nights, partly because the scenario—it's set in the world of figure skating, for god's sake—allows its cast more room to add dashes of idiosyncrasy to their performances.
The premise gets laughs from its sheer stupidity: men's figure-skating rivals, Chazz Michael Michaels (Ferrell) and Jimmy MacElroy (Jon Heder), both banned from the sport, form an unbeatable tandem to become the first male-male figure-skating duo. The filmmakers don't even try to connect the dots. Implausibility is a given. Sometimes, it's played knowingly, such as the sight of Ferrell's unshapely physique moving like a rock star on ice. Most of the time, however, it's simply the work of lazy filmmakers who just want to roll the cameras and let their actors rip. (A possible explanation: It's been reported that the movie almost shut down after Heder broke his ankle during filming. Perhaps an abbreviated production schedule can account for some of the sloppiness.) That laziness inflects not just the movie qua movie, but the quality of the laughs. Much of the humor is of the low-hanging-fruit variety. There are hardly any sustained bits, and what seem like set-ups for rich pay-offs are left conspicuously dangling. One gag involving Chazz's $12,000 hairbrush goes nowhere; back story involving Jimmy's evil foster father, seemingly poised to return later in the movie, is left untouched.
The anarchic spirit that made Anchorman such an unruly laugh-fest (and was largely jettisoned in Talladega Nights) remains muffled here. Yet for all of the frustrations about missed opportunities, the stubborn fact remains that Blades of Glory made me laugh, often and out loud. In particular, the first reel, starting with Heder's medal-winning peacock routine and peaking with the Zoolander-esque montages of MacElroy and Michaels—one prissy and precise, the other loud and nasty—supplies the movie enough good will to elevate the earthbound remainder. At times, we get glimpses of a spryer, kookier movie, as when a commentator intones that Michaels was a product of Detroit's “underground sewer skating scene” or when the screen flashes for just a brief second on the cover of Chazz's award-winning porn DVD: The Iceman Cometh. (In Talladega Nights, that shot would have lasted a couple of beats longer, lest the audience miss it.)
When Chazz and Jimmy team up and start skating together, the humor leans a little too heavily on the unfortunate formula of homosexual panic. The groans from some in the crowd when the two first touch lovingly on the ice can be discomfitting—you wonder if cheap laughs pandering to the Maxim demo are what we're in store for. But the movie wisely avoids humping that note. By the time Chazz and Jimmy get to their coup de grace, the audience has become inured to the two-guys-dancing joke. Instead, what we laugh at is the sheer awesomeness of their Flash Gordon-themed number, a cheesy, bombastic production complete with sparking skates and a legendary maneuver attempted but once in skating history—in North Korea, where a female skater lost her head in a failed attempt.
As with movies of its ilk, Blades of Glory gets much mileage out of its inspired supporting cast. The incomparable Will Arnett and Amy Poehler, husband and wife in real life, play Stranz and Fairchild van Waldenberg, the sexually charged brother and sister team who rule the sport. Hilarious throughout, Arnett and Poehler come up with an instant classic: a routine to Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch's “Good Vibrations,” a hilarious knock at white obliviousness about hip-hop culture. If anything, the pair are underused—their climactic number as JFK and Marilyn Monroe, isn’t even shown in its entirety. Likewise, other would-be standouts are given too little to do: Romany Malco (spirited but unseen), Jenna Fischer (pretty and blah), and Rob Corddry (unfunny and wasted). The movie's big discovery is Nick Swardson, who plays a creepy stalker obsessed with Jimmy. You can tell the filmmakers agree too, as Swardson has prime real estate over the credits as the only performer featured in the obligatory outtake send-off.
There are few exercises more pointless than arguing about funny. Why does my friend who loves Monty Python hate Arrested Development? Why is a fellow Arrested Development fan left cold by Wet Hot American Summer? And how come the buddy who laughs at the latter finds Woody Allen so unlikable? It’s a mystery to me as I find all of the above uproarious—as I do Will Ferrell. I could rationalize post facto the reasons for my laughter, but I would just be gussying up a gut response in intellectual clothing. Blades of Glory really comes down to one thing: whether or not you find Ferrell funny. In the history of comedy, no one has ever persuaded anyone to laugh at something they didn’t find humorous. I won’t start now. See it if you think you’ll get it, and stay away if you won’t.