Of all the Saturday Night Live alumni to hit movie pay dirt, Will Ferrell is the only one who never acts as if he’s bigger than his material. In one sense, that’s fitting. His body is only moderately expressive (he uses his flab to droll effect), and his face is mild to the point of blobbiness. Yet I’d rather see a new Ferrell movie than one by any of his fellow SNL graduates. He has a sweet spirit missing from other contemporary screen clowns; he finds the poetry in fatuousness. In Anchorman, Talladega Nights, and the new Blades of Glory, Ferrell lovingly ravages the American male psyche. It might be argued that the targets of these movies—TV blowhards and celebrity athletes—are easy pickings, and that the films are simply full-length parodies of junk genres. But those parodies are an artful mix of tight craftsmanship and gags that spin out like adolescent free associations. Machismo goes hand in dainty hand with homosexual panic, while real men are those who overcome their fear of looking like sissies.
In Blades of Glory, Ferrell plays figure skater Chazz Michael Michaels, a sex-obsessed galoot who fondles his female fans and ends his twirls by clutching his crotch and trash-talking his opponents. This is in stark contrast to his rival, Jimmy MacElroy (Jon Heder), the girlish blond orphan who closes his balletic routines by gently releasing a white dove. After the pair breaks into fisticuffs (the child-fans weep, a teddy-bear mascot goes up in flames), an all-star skating tribunal bans the brute and the femme from competition. But a loophole emerges: They may compete in pairs skating!
Blades of Glory is far more conventional than its predecessors, which were directed and co-written by Ferrell’s steady collaborator, Adam McKay. The odd-couple buddy premise is flabby, and the film has no spasms of genius to equal the stylings of Sacha Baron Cohen as a prim gay French existentialist car-racer in Talladega Nights or the news team’s impromptu a cappella “Afternoon Delight” in Anchorman. But the laughs glide in, one after another. The directors, Will Speck and Josh Gordon, nail the subtext and straight-faced deportment of Ferrell’s best movies. Although I’m not sure Heder’s dorky mouth-breather shtick—the joke is he’s both spacey and prickly—has much stretch, his slumpy affect and stringy frame match up wondrously with Ferrell’s beefiness. There’s a hetero romance between emotionally abused ingénues: Jimmy and a radiantly pretty Jenna Fischer as the sister of a conniving brother-sister skating team. But that’s window dressing. What powers the movie are the gross-out gags—approach the revelation of the ultimate skating move, the Iron Lotus, with caution!—and the scenes in which each man learns to overcome his revulsion to touching/being touched by another dude.
I’m looking forward to buying Blades of Glory on DVD so I can get my head around the phenomenal skating routines. Obviously, there were wires and lifts and computer-generated effects, but for my money it looked like the lumbering Ferrell and nerdy Heder were Olympic-worthy stylists. The triple lutzes make the heart leap. The climactic ice dance—to Queen’s immortal theme from Flash Gordon (“Flash! Ah-ahhhh! Savior of the universe!”)—might be the apotheosis of man-boy love. Platonic, of course, as befits the idealized medium of ice-skating.
Bringing off a con-man saga involves quite a bit of con artistry. There is the matter of sweetening the protagonist, who is ripping off innocent people and/or taking credit for other people’s achievements. There is the inevitability of the comeuppance. In the sixties and early seventies, con artists were counterculture heroes sticking it to the Man, but nowadays we’re all Enron victims and James Frey haters. So it’s bracing to see a grand con-man comedy like The Hoax, in which our moral universe is affirmed, and yet the fabled trickster Clifford Irving—who wrote a fraudulent autobiography of Howard Hughes—is so darn likable.
It helps that Irving is played by Richard Gere, a much-underrated actor who learned, as the villain of Internal Affairs, to harness his Methody contortions and underplay slyly. Now he gives out emotion in tiny beams; he’s a glimmer man. In Lasse Hallström’s film (the screenplay by William Wheeler is based on Irving’s account), Irving has a notion that’s nine parts insane to one part inspired: that Hughes is too much of a recluse to contest a fake autobiography. He thinks up the scam after a novel he’s on the verge of selling to Houghton Mifflin is cruelly rejected, leaving him with a new Mercedes convertible and spiraling debts. So he persuades his buddy, Richard Suskind (Alfred Molina), to help him research—and, in effect, speak for—the world’s most storied and elusive weirdo.
In their press notes, the filmmakers have the decency to spell out their own liberties with the truth. I begrudge them none except the revelation that Irving in fact had a four-book contract with Houghton Mifflin: There is a difference between a scheme cooked up in repose and one born of farcical desperation. That said, it’s the element of farce that gives The Hoax its often-hilarious drive. As skepticism mounts, Irving must think on his feet, concocting ever more outlandish accounts of furtive meetings with the capricious germaphobic billionaire. Gere plays Irving as a smoothie, a master juggler (he’s also juggling a mistress, played by a mouthwatering Julie Delpy), but he’s saddled with Molina’s Suskind, a mopey exhibitionist who’s so sure of failure that he does what he can—unconsciously—to bring it about. The movie’s neat little fillip is that as Irving dictates the book, he begins to dress and talk like Hughes—to channel Hughes. Maybe that’s why Gere’s performance feels so impish. It’s a Method satire. (It’s also true to Irving’s bogus book—available on his Website—which rings with conviction.)