Nine years ago the film There's Something About Mary, starring Ben Stiller, Matt Dillon and Cameron Diaz,was released. It was smart and lowbrow, goofily charming and hard not to like. A decade later, it can be seen as the forward scout of a breed - if not a franchise - of American comedy that is ever growing. From Meet the Parents (and its more laboured sequel, Meet the Fockers)through Zoolander, Dodgeball, Anchorman, Starsky & Hutch, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Talladega Nights and now Blades of Glory (released nationally last month),these films - family-friendly but adolescent-leaning comedies with flashes of subversive brilliance - have found a place in audiences' hearts and wallets. They have taken a worldwide box-office total of US$2.2 billion, and Blades of Glory should add another US$100 million to that.
They tend to centre on a group of mostly male, mostly gangly, often neurotic characters riffing off each other with sharp wit and fluid ease. Among the actors there is the sense that an intimacy and a shared love of the absurd might extend beyond the set. Often, as in Zoolander and Starsky & Hutch,the pent-up frustrations and not-quite-brainy-enough ineptitude of Ben Stiller plays off the Zen-like imperturbability of Owen Wilson, a blonde surfer-dude cross between Dobie Gillis, Mr Magoo and Shaggy from the Scooby Doo cartoons. Stiller is the current American comic everyman: sweet, hapless and well intentioned, bemused and bewildered by a world of larger forces and crueller foes. (By contrast, Jim Carrey's comic mania has an acidic edge, which may be why for many he is a love-him-or-hate-him actor, and why he doesn't really fit with the aforementioned: he's funny, but it's scare-the-children funny.)
Add to Stiller and his cohort, more recently, Will Ferrell. I was not familiar with him, and when I saw the trailer for Elf, I instinctively avoided it on the life-is-short principle. (I have still not seen Elf,so I'm not sure if this was a mistake.) Then, one wet weekend, I saw The Wedding Crashers, a fair-to-middling member of the Mary clan starring Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn. It was comedy by numbers: a few laughs, not a disgrace but no surprises. That is, until the final 15 minutes, when the story proper had been all but exhausted and the two protagonists visited an apparently deranged career bachelor and legendary party guy still living with his momma. It seemed suddenly that the movie had entered a delicate tear in the fabric of cinema time and space, and I sat transfixed and thrilled at a beautifully off-the-wall performance that stole, or in any case redeemed, the show. The actor was Will Ferrell.
Ferrell has risen, in just a few years, from doing sketches on Saturday Night Live. There's something deliciously subversive about him: he's not hallucinatory and otherworldly in that Jim Carrey or Mike Myers way, and yet he's not entirely the Ben Stiller everyman either. He's completely self-knowing in his films, too - a throwback, perhaps, to his SNL roots. There is a parodic exhilaration to everything Ferrell does; there's always the sense that any scene is precariously close to being a blooper reel. He's an archetypal Midwestern boofhead, a bit thick, and either less sophisticated than he thinks or too dumb to care. His eyes are too close together for him to be handsome. (He has played George W Bush to a tee in Saturday Night Live sketches, and were there to be a comedy, or rather a tragicomedy, made about Bush, Ferrell would be the man for the part.) He's a little thickset, and the pockmarks show through on his face. Yet somehow, through his self-knowing, self-deprecating abandonment to idiocy, he is sexy.
Certainly all these films, Ferrell's and the others, are formulaic. There's an obviousness to the set-ups, a no-nonsense compression, a sometimes clunky transition from one sequence to the next. At times, when scenes are signposted and groan-obvious, you feel that the comedy has been vetted by a screenwriting committee. But there's also something odd about the structure of Talladega Nights, Anchorman and Blades of Glory. They keep allowing themselves to venture to fantastically absurd places - to set aside the rapid and hokey forward movement - and there to idle in neutral, in zones of pure comic exploration. It's these moments of expansive hilarity, rather than the denouements of plot, that make the films worthwhile.
Each Ferrell film is about a man at the peak of worldly achievement who loses everything, and then has to claw his way back to the top. He doesn't make it back wiser or changed; he simply makes it back, recovering what he lost but in elevated circumstances, his essential moronic nature intact. This reluctance to inject a message into the films - beyond their message that society is intrinsically weird, and that weirdness is funny - may be their saving grace. In Anchorman Ferrell is Ron Burgundy, an unreconstructed male, an early '80s San Diego news anchor still living in the early '70s and looking for all the world like one of those moustachioed male models in Esquire circa 1973. His world is threatened, and then upturned, by the arrival of a female newscaster, Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate). In Talladega Nights Ferrell is Ricky Bobby, a semi-imbecilic but deeply likeable redneck Nascar driver whose champion status is threatened, and then usurped, by the arrival of a suave French Formula 1 racer, Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen). In both films his worldview remains blissfully unchanged through these upheavals.
What distinguishes the Ferrell films from some of the others in the pack is their sheer relish for language: for the comic potential of words themselves; for the oddness of accents, of grammar, of the gloriously elastic properties of English. Pompous anchorman Ron Burgundy says things like "Great Odin's raven!" and "By the beard of Zeus!" deadpan, and it seems almost Pythonesque, because Ferrell is so deeply at play. Even when the films are at their dumbest, there's a linguistic fascination; in Blades of Glory,for example, there is the following exchange: "Mind-bottling, isn't it?" "Did you just say ‘mind-bottling'?" "Yeah, you know, like when things are so crazy it gets your thoughts all trapped, like in a bottle?"
But it's not the little gags so much as the extended set-pieces where the lunacy soars. In Talladega Nights there is a scene in which Ricky Bobby's attempts to say grace at a family lunch get interrupted by an argument about whether it is appropriate to pray to the infant or the adult Jesus. The scene extends into surreal hilarity primarily because it is allowed to go on so far beyond the initial gag. (In this way it echoes the famous Abbott and Costello "Who's on first?" skit.) Here's a sample from towards the end of these deliciously absurd convolutions; imagine all this in deep Southern accents, and that you can almost see the great John C Reilly, as Ricky Bobby's best friend, Cal Naughton Jr, quivering from the effort not to laugh:
Ricky Bobby: Dear tiny Jesus, in your golden-fleeced diapers, with your tiny little fat balled-up fist ...
Grampa (banging on table): He was a man! He had a beard ...
Ricky Bobby: I like the baby version the best. Do you hear me? I win the races and I get the money!
Ricky Bobby's wife, Carley: Finish the damned grace.
Cal Naughton Jr: I like to picture Jesus in a tuxedo T-shirt, 'cos it says, like, "I wanna be formal, but I wanna party too." 'Cos I like to party, so I like my Jesus to party.
Ricky Bobby's son Walker (the other son is named Texas Ranger): I like to picture Jesus as a ninja fighting off evil samurai.
Cal: I like to think of Jesus, like, with giant eagle's wings, and singing lead vocals for Lynyrd Skynyrd, with, like, an angel band.
Ricky Bobby: Right!
Cal: And I'm in the front row, and I'm hammered drunk.
Carley: Hey, Cal. Why'nt you just shut up?
Cal: Yes, ma'am.
Ricky Bobby: OK. Dear eight-pound, six-ounce newborn infant Jesus. Don't even know a word yet. We just thank you for all the races I've won, and the $21.2 million -
Ricky Bobby: - that I have accrued during this past season. Also, due to a binding contract that stipulates I mention Powerade at each grace, I just want to say that Powerade is delicious, and it cools you off on a hot summer day, and we look forward to Powerade's release of Mystic Mountain Blueberry. Thank you for all your power and your grace, dear baby God. Amen.
Cal: That was a hell of a grace, man. You nailed that grace like a split hog.
Walker: Dad, you made that grace your bitch.
Hollywood is always reluctant to offend its huge Midwestern-Christian audience, and material such as this sails close to the wind. Perhaps it is the sheer jaw-dropping excess that helps them get away with it. Mostly I think it is the sense of play,the actors' delight in pushing unhinged Southern lunacy to the limit.
The one-line precis of Ferrell's new film, Blades of Glory, would be ‘Talladega Nights in the world of professional figure-skating,' and I imagine these films are conceived with pitches like that. Ferrell plays another delusional, overly confident male, this time the world-champion figure-skater ‘Chas' Michael Michaels, a self-described "ice-devouring sex tornado" who gets to deliver to a reporter the classic line, "Troubled childhood? If you call being a nine-year-old kid with a 35-year-old girlfriend troubled." He's a "sex addict" too: "It's my cross to bear. It's a real disease, with doctors and medicine and everything!"
Chas's nemesis is the effete Jimmy MacElroy (Jon Heder, from the seriously weird 2004 cult comedy Napoleon Dynamite), whose guiding aesthetic might run to, say, unicorns and fluffy clouds on sky-blue spangled wallpaper. Jimmy is cluelessly pure, famed for his blond locks; Chas describes him as looking like "a 15-year-old girl, but not hot". Chas is the renegade macho man in this ultra-high-camp world, little realising that he, with his slight paunch and rock 'n' roll bad-boy leather get-up, is the campest of them all.
The two are forced to share gold after scoring equal points in the men's figure-skating championship. After an unseemly (and beautifully slapstick) altercation on the podium, they are stripped of their medals and banned from the sport for life. Both then hit the skids in different ways. Eventually, a loophole allows them to come back into international competition - but only in the doubles category. Thus is born, reluctantly, the world's first male-male figure-skating team.
Blades of Glory remains completely deadpan. Everything is self-knowing, a wink at the audience, and cheap shots are made only at the expense of the characters. The world of figure-skating, its intrinsic campness, is left alone. This is a loving move by the directors, Josh Gordon and Will Speck: it means that the film has warmth, rather than just being a series of high-grade lowbrow sketches and gags. That the protagonists inhabit and fill their world, rather than come up against it, enhances the comedy. The gap between the delusional, posturing way Chas sees himself and the way we see him is where empathy is created.
If you're embarrassed by your puerile side, or don't have one, then this breed of comedy is probably eminently dismissible. If you're wavering, take heart in the fact that Terrence Malick claims Zoolander is his favourite film. In any case, these films are documents of the age, records of America's wishes, fantasies, anxieties. They're the Bob Hope and Bing Crosby ‘Road' movies of our time; appealing and irreverent yet largely inoffensive, they stick close to the pop-cultural zeitgeist. Their modus operandiisthe relentless puncturing of pretension, and, if Saturday TV matinees still exist in the future, these may well be the films that tell restless, half-curious adolescents what it was that our era saw as deserving of deflation. As for how they work in the here and now: in Talladega Nights Will Ferrell's character says, "I'm just a big hairy American winning machine." That might well be as perfect a description of the phenomenon as you could find.
Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012).
Nine years ago the film There's Something About Mary, starring Ben Stiller, Matt Dillon and Cameron Diaz,was released. It was smart and lowbrow, goofily charming and hard not to like. A decade later, it can be seen as the forward scout of a breed - if not a franchise - of American comedy that is ever growing. From Meet the Parents (and its more laboured sequel, Meet the Fockers)through Zoolander, Dodgeball, Anchorman, Starsky & Hutch, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Talladega Nights and now Blades of Glory (released nationally last month),these films - family-friendly but adolescent-leaning comedies with flashes of subversive brilliance - have found a place in audiences' hearts and wallets. They have taken a worldwide box-office total of US$2.2 billion, and Blades of Glory...