Back in 2006 at the media weekend for Stranger Than Fiction, Ferrell seemed poised for a breakout of sorts, a stretch outside the comic mold that had earned him a legion of fans eager to cast him as “the next Adam Sandler,” which is a rather narrow tag when you consider that those guys have very little in common in terms of comic stylings and the fact that they both got breaks on SNL. Although, the more I think about it now, each of them developed into reliable box-office jokesters and then hooked up with serious filmmakers (PT Anderson and co-stars Emily Watson and Phillip Seymour Hoffman for Sandler’s Punch Drunk Love, while Ferrell partnered with Marc Forster and heavyweights Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman in Fiction) in order to transition into the drama club, so maybe they are brothers from other mothers.
Anyway, Ferrell, during interviews for Fiction, seemed so driven to distance himself from his wild and crazy persona, that he completely locked the funny guy in the hole. He talked about comedy from a remove that felt like he was observing that part of himself from deep space. He was all about the acting, although, to be fair, it wasn’t in a pretentious, preening manner because he didn’t need to toot his own horn, since he had Dustin Hoffman telling us, “He (Ferrell) was acting right from the third or fourth take in the first scene we had (together), and I said, ‘uh-oh, he’s more real than I am.' And I went to the director and I said that he (Ferrell) is really working very subtly.
The director agreed with me and I said I better match that because I realized that he was showing me up.”
I caught up with Ferrell a couple of years later, much closer to home in Columbus, when he was on a publicity tour for the basketball comedy Semi-Pro. This time the funny Ferrell was completely off the leash. Out of the self-imposed self-serious prison, he was like a two-strike offender on a bender. He was “Will Ferrell, comedy whore,” and while that guy was a riot, there was something studied in that turn as well, as if he had to give us exactly what we expected and then some.
I wouldn’t have been surprised if, in this highly manufactured manic state, he had come up to each and every member of the press on hand, gotten up in our faces and started telling jokes in rat-a-tat-tat fashion with little bits of spittle spraying us, while we did our best to act like it wasn’t freaking us out.
All of which generated a curious level of anxiety in me as I prepared for my most recent encounter with Ferrell in support of The Other Guys, in which he and creative partner Adam McKay (Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers) set their sights on a pair of cops (Ferrell and the decidedly unfunny Mark Wahlberg, who is quite funny when surrounded by his hilarious co-stars in a safe, nearly impregnable comedy cocoon), known as “the Other Guys,” who are quite obviously not the heroic types.
Which Will Ferrell would await me?
Well, it is safe to say that another Will Ferrell entered the room for the press conference with co-stars Wahlberg, the irrepressible Michael Keaton, the junior comedic diva Eva Mendes and McKay in tow. This other guy was quite funny, but much more relaxed. He wasn’t out to impress us with refined actorly tics or zany mania, yet those aspects were present both in the film and in person. There is no doubt that Ferrell is a comedic actor intent on breathing life into whatever character he’s playing.
In The Other Guys, while Gamble is “the” supportive player on the force, a desk jockey watching and admiring the exploits of heedlessly destructive super-cops Highsmith (Samuel L. Jackson) and Danson (Dwayne Johnson), he is certainly the leading man in his life story and that of his wife (Mendes) who works as a successful doctor during the day and as Gamble’s ever-supportive helpmate at home. It was clear from the outset of the press conference that Ferrell was just as much of a team player as Gamble.
Wahlberg deadpanned his way through comments about how surprised he was to have been approached by Ferrell and McKay to be involved in this project. Mendes brandished her divaliciousness like an old-school pie in the face to such an extent that I’m sure Lucille Ball would have been quite proud of her, while Keaton and McKay flung quips and anecdotes of the on-set hijinks that transformed the event into a DVD outtake.
But Ferrell, well, he seemed content to wait his turn and let the moment come to him. McKay at one point praised the cast, saying that ,“You go through everyone in this movie — Mark and Eva, Michael, Dwayne and Sam — they all had the great instincts of knowing to play comedy real.”
He didn’t include Ferrell in that comment, but the other guy up on that panel has proven himself to be as real (and really funny) as they come.
THE OTHER GUYS opens Aug. 6. Read tt stern-enzi's review of the movie, find theaters and show times and see the trailer here.