For most actors who long ago ascended to the rarified realm of A-list household names, starring in a Lifetime movie would be a dispiriting sign that your once blessed career is locked in a steep downward spiral. But Will Ferrell is not most movie stars. Since rocketing to cinematic super-stardom with Old School, Elf and Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy, Ferrell has had an unmistakable Jekyll & Hyde quality.
These days, Ferrell alternates between making the kinds of big, commercial mainstream comedies a funny man of his popularity and stature are expected to make, like the dire going-to-prison comedy Get Hard, which was a feature-length gay panic joke liberally augmented with casual sexism and racism and gleefully postmodern, borderline avant-garde projects riffing irreverently on Ferrell’s status as a major movie star.
Though I have not seen it, it seems like much of the meta-joke of A Deadly Adoption, the upcoming, “secret” Lifetime movie that debuts on June 20th, lies in the in the incongruity of major comedy movie stars like Ferrell and Wiig earnestly inhabiting the roles and overwrought emotions of the C-listers and has-beens who usually populate the channel’s glossy potboilers. It’s similar to how what made Ferrell’s loving telenovela parody/homage from a few years back Casa de Mi Padre such an audacious stunt was seeing the superstar embodiment of moneyed WASP arrogance commit so thoroughly to starring in a loving tribute to trashy lowbrow Mexican television filmed entirely in Spanish, a language many of his biggest fans do not speak.
Casa de Mi Padre is the definition of an acquired taste. Like A Deadly Adoption, its appeal and its commercial limitations are inextricably intertwined. In both instances, Ferrell is making a very specific tribute to a corner of the pop culture universe much of the public has no knowledge of, or particular interest in, yet that obviously obsess Ferrell.
A Deadly Adoption shares a writer (Andrew Steele) with The Spoils Of Babylon, another perversely specific parody of a pop culture phenomenon a small fraction of the public even remembers. And the people who do remember what The Spoils Of Babylon is resurrecting for the purpose of spoofery — the bloated, melodramatic “event” mini-series of the 1970s and 1980s, often based on the kinds of best-selling paperbacks that traditionally accompany business travelers during plane rides — are exactly the kind of old people advertisers and the rest of society don’t value.
In The Spoils Of Babylon, Ferrell plays Eric Jonrosh, a self-described “author, producer, actor, writer, director, raconteur, bon vivant, legend and fabulist” and the man whose inebriated imagination created the world the mini-series occupies. Jonrosh introduces each episode of the miniseries in demented spiels that feel like they were the product of sticking a large glass of scotch in front of Ferrell, then encouraging him to say whatever he wanted for hours upon end, secure in the knowledge that there would be plenty of hilarity to be gleaned from those vast oceans of improvisation.
There may even be a bit of a meta-joke in depicting Ferrell’s character as the fountainhead from which all of The Spoils Of Babylon’s craziness sprang because Ferrell also produced the miniseries through his Funny Or Die banner along with partner Adam McKay.
It is as a producer and production company co-head that Ferrell has made many of his most important and substantial contributions to edgy, boundary pushing and transgressive comedy. And it is as one of the heads of Funny Or Die and Gary Sanchez Productions (with McKay) that Ferrell has played an essential role discovering and nurturing provocative and important talent.
Danny McBride and his collaborators Jody Hill and Ben Best would not be where they are if Ferrell and McKay hadn’t caught their deliberately off-putting and divisive comedy The Foot Fist Way early and decided to put their weight behind it by helping distribute it. The film was not the Napoleon Dynamite-like cult hit they anticipated but Ferrell and McKay had much better luck with the next McBride/Hill/Best production they executive produced through Gary Sanchez Productions: HBO’s moodily cinematic baseball series Eastbound & Down, one of the edgiest and most inspired television comedies of the past 20 years. It didn’t hurt that Ferrell took a substantial role in front of the camera as well as behind it by playing an obnoxious mogul and nemesis of anti-hero Kenny Powers in multiple episodes.
Ferrell similarly did double duty as a producer and prominent supporting player on cult icons Tim Heidecker and Tim Wareheim’s wonderfully perplexing, staggeringly surreal 2012 vehicle Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie, which proved that the duo’s shtick was just as divisive and inspired on the big screen as it was on the little one. Not everything Gary Sanchez Productions has been as daring or as brilliant as Eastbound & Down or Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie. Gary Sanchez Productions has produced a fair share of unambitious schlock but Ferrell and McKay have never been shy about using the power they amassed delighting frat boys to champion offbeat and controversial talents.
As one of the people behind online sensation Funny Or Die, Ferrell helped create a home for Zack Galifinakis and Scott Aukerman’s Between Two Ferns, a faux interview show hosted by Galifinakis so popular and influential that it was able to rope President Obama into participating in its intricately wrought anti-comedy.
In an even more audacious attempt to subvert the expectations the public has about how movie stars should conduct their careers, Ferrell has appeared in Super Bowl Old Milwaukee commercials that infamously only played a tiny number of purposefully small markets.
The key to the Old Milwaukee spots and the wild side of Ferrell’s oeuvre lies in their deliberately modest scope. The Spoils Of Babylon may be a star-studded mini-series but it’s given that it was on IFC, no one expected it to deliver finale-of-MASH-level ratings. Similarly, if Casa de Mi Padre was seen as a bold comedy experiment that deliberately set out to alienate much of its ostensible audience, and in that regard, it succeeded wildly despite it’s mediocre box office. In that respect, part of the genius of A Deadly Adoption lies in the fact that this parody of Lifetime television movies inhabits the exact same cultural space as what it’s parodying. A Deadly Adoption doesn’t just look like a Lifetime movie; it is a Lifetime movie, at least by virtue of its format and the channel on which it airs.
The two sides of Ferrell come together most satisfyingly in the films he makes with McKay, who has been working with him since their Saturday Night Live days. In their collaborations, Ferrell explores winningly specific worlds: the leeringly chauvinistic realm of local news in the 1970s with Anchorman; the gaudy, surreally materialistic tackiness of NASCAR with Talledega Nights; or the macho buddy cop action-comedy with The Other Guys.
Ferrell has more big mainstream comedies on the way but he’s also going to be playing Russ Meyer opposite Josh Gad in Russ And Roger Go Beyond, Michael Winterbottom’s film about the making of Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls. Ferrell also has a supporting role in Zeroville, a trippy film about late 1960s Hollywood directed by and starring James Franco, another actor and filmmaker who has devoted much of his career to endlessly toying with the concept of his own celebrity and stardom. These challenging, edgy roles in small-scale pictures might seem like a change of pace for Ferrell, but only for people who have not paid close attention to his fascinatingly bifurcated and sometimes quietly adventurous career.
Nathan Rabin served as the head writer of The A.V. Club for most of his 16-year career there. He is also the author of four books, including 2009’s memoir The Big Rewind; 2010’s My Year Of Flops, a book of essays about failed film; 2012’s Weird Al: The Book, a coffee-table book about the life and career of “Weird Al” Yankovic, which Rabin co-wrote with the beloved pop icon; and 2013’s You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me, an exploration of musical subcultures focused on the time Rabin spent following Insane Clown Posse and Phish. He lives in Chicago with his wife and dog and tweets at @nathanrabin.