The Will Ferrell Sports Movie craze spanned just four features, although it seems like there were so many more of them. Between 2005 and 2008, each year saw a new release right on schedule, like high school sports seasons. First came soccer (Kicking and Screaming), and then car racing (Talladega Nights), followed by figure skating (Blades of Glory), and finally basketball (Semi-Pro). By the time the last one had come and gone, though, the idea of Will Ferrell playing in organized competition couldn’t have been more groaningly familiar. An end had to be near, if for no other reason than the fact that he was running out of sports. We’d seen Ferrell take a nutshot from just about every flying projectile possible, and it felt like we’d seen enough. Public opinion all but demanded that he retire his jersey for good.
It’s now been three years since a Will Ferrell Sports Movie has been released, and the years have not been kind. Somehow Talladega Nights is the only one to be remembered fondly, while Semi-Pro and Blades of Glory are generally considered interchangeable markers of excess, and everyone pretends Kicking and Screaming didn’t happen at all. This is an unfair taxonomy. Talladega isn’t a great comedy, and Semi-Pro isn’t as bad as people make it out to be. Kicking and Screaming is remembered exactly correctly, insofar as it’s been completely forgotten. Blades of Glory, though, while not exactly in the all-time comedy pantheon, is easily the best of the Will Ferrell Sports Movies, and that’s why it’s the subject of today’s Reconsideration.
Blades starts out at the World Championships of Figure Skating, where two of America’s greats are gunning for the number one spot in men’s singles. Jimmy MacElroy (Jon Heder) is a technical wizard, raised by an adoptive father who went from breeding horses to grooming human athletes, making Jimmy into his grand project. Chazz Michael Michaels (Will Ferrell, who has almost as many great character names as Sylvester Stallone) is, of course, a superfreak — a swaggering figure skater/porn star. He seems, at first thrust, like just another bucket from Ferrell’s well of egotistical hypersexual alpha men, and he is, but this “ice-devouring sex tornado” has enough variance to stand out among the bunch. It’s Will Ferrell’s most idiosyncratic character since Ron Burgundy.
Due to some sort of incident (no spoil-o), our heroes are banned for life from competitive figure skating. Cut to four years later and the two have fallen on hard times — MacElroy now works in a skating shop, and Michaels is the debauched star of local children’s skating attraction, The Grublets. Both former champs are haunted by the levels of success they never attained; MacElroy more so, since getting banned meant getting “un-adopted” by his strictly business father (played by William Fichtner, in a role Christopher MacDonald might have also aced.) The mutual exile comes to a halt, though, when one of the side characters discovers a loophole in the official bylaws. It turns out that Michaels and MacElroy are banned from competitive skating as singles, but they are both eligible for pairs skating. By now you surely see where this is going.
For a movie about the first male figure skating duo, there is a laudable lack of “gay panic” jokes on deck. Lest we forget, Blades of Glory came out in 2007, the year that brought us Adam Sandler’s I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry. That movie sprained its spinal cord bending over backwards to assure viewers how revolted the title characters were at having to pretend to be gay for each other. In Blades of Glory, Jon Heder’s character is pretty effeminate, and he does have a signature move called the “Galluping Peacock,” but for the most part, the idea of homosexuality isn’t even alluded to enough for the characters to freak out over it. There’s a thin line between gay panic and being visibly grossed out at having another man’s crotch mere centimeters from your face during competitive sport. Considering that it’s a Will Ferrell figure skating movie, Blades stays surprisingly on the smart side of that line.
It’s almost unfair to call this a Will Ferrell movie, though. Pound for pound, Blades of Glory boasts one of the best ensemble comedy casts of the last ten years. Don’t believe me? Okay, the main duo’s coach is played by Craig T. Nelson (for whom it must have taken special coaxing to get to play a coach again.) Their unscrupulous rivals, the Van Waldenberg siblings, are played by real-life marrieds, Amy Poehler and Will Arnett. Nick Swardson plays Jimmy McElroy’s stalker with a creepy tenderness that’s surprisingly restrained (for Swardson.) The criminally underemployed Romany Malco (Jay in The 40-Year Old Virgin) plays a dance instructor. Also Rob Corddry, Andy Richter, and Luke Wilson have terrific one-scene roles.
Everybody pulls their weight too, bringing something more than a recognizable face to the table. Well, almost everybody — Jenna Fisher (probably forever doomed to be Pam from The Office) strikes a false note with her line readings in just about every scene she’s in, and Jon Heder has a tough time selling his do-gooder’s humblebraggy selflessness at times. So much goes right, though, that these speed bumps barely even register. For example, despite that last comment, Jimmy McElroy is the only decent role Heder has had since he blew up in Napoleon Dynamite. He’s not the only one to come out ahead for a change either: Amy Poehler and Will Arnett are two of the funniest people around, but their humor is often diluted by roles in so-so movies. Their previous missteps are all the more reason then why it’s refreshing to see them nail it as sneering villainous siblings. It also doesn’t hurt that for their characters, the costume-designer really just went for it.
Central to the film’s success, though, is the chemistry between the two leads. Ferrell’s undisciplined, showboating improviser and Heder’s mechanics-minded traditionalist are straight out of the screenwriter’s handbook, but it’s fun to watch the relationship arc. When the pair begrudgingly gain respect for one another — right around the time they skate to Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” — it’s affecting in the way of an actual sports movie, rather than the usual semi-parody of such. Blades of Glory is unique in its ability to transcend its goofy roots as a Will Ferrell Sports Movie when it needs to, and then ease back into goofiness when there’s an opportunity for laughs.
Although Blades made $119M domestically, and critics seemed to like the movie, it still seems to be written off as just another of the seemingly myriad Will Ferrell Sports Flicks, and remembered just about as unfondly as Semi-Pro. Perhaps if released at a different point in his career, it would have been thought of as one of the highlights alongside Ferrell’s untouchable 2003-2004 run (Old School, Elf, Anchorman). Timing is everything, though. Hopefully enough time has passed that if the upcoming Will Ferrell football movie is any good, it’ll get judged on a level playing field.