The Five Absolutely Essential Will Ferrell Movies
Welcome to “Five Absolutely Essentials,” an overview of the greatest comedians’ most memorable moments. Mind you, these aren’t necessarily their “best” movies — rather, these are the five films that best represent different aspects of their talent, their ambition, their persona and the artistic risks they’ve taken along the way. If you’re looking for a sense of a comic in all his or her complexity, here’s where to start.
Will Ferrell turned 55 this summer. That’s a strange thing to type: For much of his career, either on Saturday Night Live or on the big screen, he’s made his living playing guys who seemed to be overgrown frat boys, youthful but also getting to an age where such boyish antics were starting to wear thin. (Appropriately, Ferrell was himself in a fraternity, Delta Tau Delta, when he attended USC.) Along the way, he mastered the art of portraying arrested development, but now deep into his 50s, he finds himself at a bit of a comedic crossroads. Stay silly or get more serious? (Plus, he and his longtime creative partner Adam McKay are on the outs.)
Who knows what awaits Ferrell next, but for now, let’s take a moment to look back on the films that have defined his stardom to this point…
When Ferrell starred in this breakout Christmas comedy, he had recently left SNL and had a few films under his belt, including the Austin Powers movies, Zoolander and Old School. But Elf was something different — and, nearly 20 years later, it’s still a fascinating outlier in his career. Soon, Ferrell would become an A-lister playing hilarious alpha-male morons, but as Buddy, a human who through wacky circumstances grew up at the North Pole thinking he’s one of Santa’s elves, he projected a winning naivety that was all sweetness and light. In a sense, Elf was him playing a different kind of idiot — once Buddy travels to New York, it becomes clear how little he understands about the real world — but Ferrell managed to make the character’s obtuseness utterly charming. (He even got to show off his skills as a romantic leading man, paired nicely with Zooey Deschanel’s friendly department-store worker.)
Not that Ferrell necessarily thought Elf was going to work — it took some test screenings for him to relax. “We did one that was more of a family-focused audience, and it worked great with them,” he said in 2021. “Then, my manager Jimmy called me and said, ‘Hey, so we just had the first one and it went really well, but I’m looking at the lineup for the second screening and it’s like a bunch of frat boys from USC, and we might get eviscerated in this.’ But it played for that audience too. That’s when we knew, ‘Maybe this will work as one of those rare movies that works for everyone and you throw your cynicism aside.’”
Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)
If there is a quintessential Will Ferrell movie, it’s this one. As the sexist 1970s San Diego TV newsman, Ferrell didn’t just fashion an iconic character — he basically nailed a distinct type of soon-to-be-passé entitled male who wasn’t happy with the world’s changing sexual politics. Ferrell’s George W. Bush impression on SNL was Ron Burgundy’s antecedent, but Anchorman cemented what was so spectacularly funny about spoofing this kind of clueless dude. Without Rob Burgundy, there’s no Chazz Reinhold or Ricky Bobby or Brennan Huff: Those subsequent characters’ unearned self-confidence and loud, angry outbursts all draw from the same wellspring that gave us Burgundy.
Remarkably, though, Burgundy’s ugly attitudes aren’t a turnoff. If anything, Ferrell’s inherent decency makes you love Burgundy — deep down, maybe this mustached clod is a good guy? It certainly didn’t hurt that Ferrell is apparently nothing like his Neanderthal characters. Paul Rudd, one of his co-stars, recently said, “I remember being on the set of Anchorman, and he’d just say these things in the moment, like ‘Milk was a bad choice,’ and I thought, ‘God, this is a really funny person being funny in ways I haven’t seen people be funny before.’ And what really struck me was that Will was doing it seemingly without a neurotic bone in his body. It didn’t make sense that someone that funny really didn’t seem insecure in the ways that so many funny people are.”
Casa de mi Padre (2012)
“I know this will sound odd,” Ferrell admitted in 2013, “but I’ve never really tried to please the audience. I just do things that I think are funny, or fun, and it’s such a crapshoot if the audience thinks they’re funny, too.”
This might be the most telling thing Ferrell has ever said, and it’s true of so much of his work. While films like Anchorman and Talladega Nights were huge hits, the comedian seems just as happy doing something willfully odd, letting the chips fall where they may. That’s certainly the case with A Deadly Adoption, his straight-faced spoof of Lifetime thrillers that aired… on Lifetime, and it’s also felt in Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga and his gloriously oddball Rose Parade appearances (as Cord) alongside Molly Shannon’s Tish, where they gave the world a parody of overly cheery, utterly banal parade broadcasts we didn’t know we needed. If something he does confuses (or even annoys) a large swath of the audience, that’s fine with Ferrell.
This tendency was probably never more apparent than in Casa de mi Padre, a sendup of telenovelas and Mexican westerns that, in classic Airplane! style, never winks at the camera. Quite the contrary, this is essentially a straight melodrama, with Ferrell playing humble rancher Armando, who falls in love with his brother’s (Diego Luna) bride-to-be, Sonia (Génesis Rodríguez). A tale of evil drug lords and intentionally cheap-o production design, Casa de mi Padre allowed Ferrell to just have fun scratching a very niche comedic itch. Would this have worked better as an SNL sketch? Most assuredly. Still, it’s rather incredible that this weird, very uneven spoof exists at all. The movie made little money — Ferrell most assuredly didn’t care.
Daddy’s Home (2015)
Ferrell’s last film with McKay as director was 2013’s Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues. Soon after, McKay focused on movies with more overt social and political commentary, starting with the Oscar-winning The Big Short. Meanwhile, Ferrell has remained largely in the world of broad comedies, with uneven results. (Few would suggest Get Hard, The House or Holmes & Watson are among his peaks.) But the most satisfying comedy he’s done in the post-McKay era is Daddy’s Home, which stars him as Brad, a perpetual nice guy who’s newly married to Sara (Linda Cardellini) and helping to raise her kids. But this milquetoast wimp feels threatened by the presence of her ex-husband Dusty (Mark Wahlberg), a fun bad boy who rides a motorcycle and is the polar opposite of Brad.
For much of Ferrell’s earlier career, he played the top dog, but as he got older, he shifted toward nerds, starting with 2010’s The Other Guys, his first collaboration with Wahlberg. To be sure, Allen Gamble still had a dark past — “Gator don’t play no shit!” — but as Brad, Ferrell was really embracing a suburban dorkiness fitting for guys his age. There was nothing cool about Brad, and it was intriguing to see the comedian portray the flip side of the sort of oversized machismo that always got laughs for him. Turns out, Ferrell’s just as good playing the beta male. (That said, avoid Daddy’s Home 2 at all costs. Everything charming and clever about the first film is shredded in the joyless sequel.)
Occasionally, Ferrell has tried his hand at drama — or, at the very least, comedy-drama. His 2006 film Stranger Than Fiction, about an ordinary man who discovers he’s the main character in an author’s novel, was looked at as Ferrell’s The Truman Show — that is, a comedian’s attempt to do something more serious while starring in a film about a character trapped in a world whose machinations he doesn’t fully grasp. Even more low-budget was Everything Must Go, based on a Raymond Carver short story. And there was also last year’s Apple TV+ series The Shrink Next Door, in which he appeared alongside Rudd. “I’m getting more interested in doing things that scare me to death,” Ferrell said around the show’s release.
His role in Downhill, an American remake of Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure, suggests the direction he may pursue more in the future. As Pete, a thoroughly unspectacular husband and father who gets in hot water with his family after leaving them to fend for themselves during an avalanche that occurs on their Austrian ski trip, the funnyman got to show off new lows of comic patheticness. Downhill is principally a dark comedy, but it’s more of a melancholy indie than the sort of crowd-pleasing laughers that made Ferrell a star in the aughts. There’s a little more heart, a little more vulnerability, in the performance, even if Pete is a hopelessly self-absorbed mediocrity.
So often, Will Ferrell has played winners — or, more accurately, guys who thought they were winners. In Downhill, though, his character is nothing but a loser. It’s a new look for him, and it’ll be interesting to see if he sticks with it for future projects.