In person, Ferrell tells me he has always been fascinated by “the macho American male or the overly confident person, because it’s usually a reflection of feeling bad about yourself and overcompensating.” So he deconstructs—even explodes—the paradigm of American masculinity, yet so tenderly you could mistake it for an ode to innocence.
Part of the way he does this is to put himself out there, literally. Since his character’s drunken naked run in Old School, it has become a trademark of sorts for Ferrell to show off a less-than-toned physique and a chest with tight little curls that resemble pubic hair. Which makes him an oddity, even among comic actors. Consider Ben Stiller, whose overpumped frame suggests, well, body issues, and that the anal-retentive persona that Stiller has perfected onscreen is close to who he is. Ferrell, in contrast—
He interjects: “I have to work out just to look like this.”
Adam McKay confirms that. On the phone from Los Angeles, where with Ferrell he co-runs Gary Sanchez Productions, named for a man who doesn’t exist, McKay says, “What’s so funny is he’s actually a really good athlete. He’s run marathons and plays basketball, he stays in shape, he just has a permanent gut. Everyone is so freaked out about it, and he has no problem at all.”
Ferrell says there’s a public-service aspect: “It’s my little message about our body consciousness. We’re so obsessed with diets and plastic surgery, and teenage girls are worried about looking fat in their jeans, and that’s my way of saying, ‘We’re all different shapes and sizes, and it’s okay.’ ”
And also: “It is funny to see characters lose their mind and then, as a result, disrobe.”
There’s another aspect of Ferrell’s comedy that runs counter to the methods of more controlling clowns. He and McKay work with actors who can free-associate on-camera. McKay says that after three or four takes to get a scene down as scripted, he’ll tell the cast to go for it and do the next five or six with four cameras rolling. “That’s the part you’re waiting for,” he says. “All of a sudden you see six other jokes you can do, and then sometimes the actors are tired and I’ll throw out lines—‘Play that angrier,’ or ‘There’s something there, you can find it,’ and Will at this point just knows instantly what I’m talking about, and, yeah, that’s the best.”
“You’ll find a little tangent,” says Ferrell, “or an avenue to go down, and Adam will be writing in his head and say, ‘Maybe talk about the fact that … ’ and that will trigger you, and it’s process, you just learn not to judge what you say, and it’s this whole back-and-forth until we run out of film.”
On Step Brothers—which Ferrell says “lent itself to inane conversations and these two guys just trying to figure things out so we could go and go and go”—they almost did run out of film. They shot an unprecedented million and a half feet. I, for one, wish they could have found time in the final cut for the seemingly endless scene (a DVD extra) in which Ferrell and John C. Reilly don night-vision goggles in their bedroom and lurch around playacting, regressing to their childhood selves, and finally breaking down in tears. The rollicking infantilism is contagious.
Did improv produce, in Anchorman, Ferrell’s musing on his fair city as he sits on a bluff with Christina Applegate: “They named it San Diego, which of course in German means ‘a whale’s vagina’ ”? Wouldn’t it be pretty to think so? It certainly did result in Richard Jenkins’s legendary Step Brothers monologue: “When I was a little boy, I always wanted to be a dinosaur. I wanted to be a Tyrannosaurus rex … I made my arms short and I roamed the backyard, I chased the neighborhood cats, I growled and I roared, everybody knew me and was afraid of me, and one day my dad said ‘Bobby, you are 17, it’s time to throw childish things aside,’ and I said ‘Okay, Pop’ … but he didn’t really say that … he said ‘Stop being a fucking dinosaur and get a job.’ But you know, I thought to myself, ‘I’ll go to medical school, I’ll practice for a little while, and then I’ll come back to it,’ ” to which Ferrell’s Brennan responds: “How is that a skill?”
I digress, but it is difficult not to. The digressions in the Ferrell-McKay movies are always the beauty parts.
McKay was a producer on Casa de Mi Padre, but it was directed by Matt Piedmont from a script by Andrew Steele. Ferrell had the idea kicking around in his head for a few years and enlisted, among others, two of Mexico’s international stars, Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna, to play, respectively, a homicidal drug kingpin and the hero’s flashy, allegedly more clever brother. The laughs are muted, but the movie has a sweet spirit that leaves you strangely happy. Beyond the goofs on telenovelas—the terrible green-screen car rides, the pathetically cheap miniatures—Casa de Mi Padre is, by Hollywood mainstream standards, audacious. It has subtitles. It accommodates social commentary—a hilarious critique of fat, lazy Americans addicted to “shitburgers full of grease,” oblivious to the carnage just over the border in the name of getting their high. It reaches out to a huge swath of the population where Ferrell grew up and lives. It has a scene in which Ferrell goes to bed with the luscious Genesis Rodriguez that segues into a gauzy montage of …