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The Films of Adam McKay

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (May 24/12)

Incredibly silly yet often hilarious, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy follows a 1970s news team (Will Ferrell's Ron Burgundy, Paul Rudd's Brian Fantana, David Koechner's Champ Kind, and Steve Carell's Brick Tamland) as they're forced to contend with the presence of a woman (Christina Applegate's Veronica Corningstone) in their ranks. Director Adam McKay, working from a script cowritten with Ferrell, has infused Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy with a freewheeling sensibility that, generally speaking, proves impossible to resist, with the uniformly charismatic work from the four leads heightening the movie's pervasively affable atmosphere. (It's not surprising to note, then, that the film fares best in its newsroom-based sequences, as such moments are rife with quotable, laugh-out-loud funny bits of comedy.) There's little doubt, however, that the movie's momentum takes a palpable hit with the introduction of Applegate's energy-draining character, with the actress' less-than-engaging performance - ie she seems to be struggling to keep up with her razor-sharp costars - resulting in a number of lags within the decidedly erratic midsection (eg a long, tedious sequence in which Ron and Veronica head out on a date). It's just as clear that Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy demonstrably bounces back after the title character experiences a series of setbacks (eg his dog is thrown off a bridge, he loses his job, etc, etc), with the ensuingly engaging third act essentially (and effectively) compensating for the lackluster stretch that precedes it - which ultimately cements the film's place as a hit-and-miss (but mostly hit) comedy that boasts an impressive number of memorable lines and gags (eg "60% of the time, it works every time!")

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Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (July 31/06)

Like Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Will Ferrell's previous collaboration with filmmaker Adam McKay, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby's few genuinely funny bits are wrapped up in an incredibly tedious, thoroughly predictable storyline. And although the movie is entertaining for a while - something that can be primarily attributed to the off-kilter yet engaging supporting performances - it's not long before the leaden pace and egregiously familiar plot bring the proceedings to a dead halt. Ferrell stars as Ricky Bobby, an egomaniacal Nascar driver who finds his dominance of the sport threatened by a French import named Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen). Things go from bad to worse after Ricky is involved in a disastrous crash that leaves him unable to race, and his wife (Leslie Bibb) dumps him for his best friend (John C. Reilly). As expected, Ricky must put aside his hubris and stage a comeback to reclaim his place of glory. Talladega Nights subjects Ricky Bobby to virtually the same arc as his Anchorman counterpart Ron Burgundy, right down to the public humiliation and brief stint at rock bottom. And while nobody would ever expect a silly comedy to possess an entirely fresh storyline, one can't help but lament McKay and Ferrell's (both of whom are credited with the film's screenplay) decision to essentially carbon-copy Anchorman's structure. It is subsequently exceedingly easy to focus on Talladega Nights' various deficiencies, particularly in its plot-heavy and strangely dramatic midsection. That being said, Ferrell remains a charming and engaging figure, and the actor is - more often than not - able to wring laughs out of even the most hackneyed situation. That he's been surrounded by undeniably talented folks such as Gary Cole, Amy Adams, and John C. Reilly (the latter of whom deserves some kind of an award for his gleefully irreverent performance) ensures that the film is never entirely flat-out boring, although there's simply no getting around the pervading feeling of mediocrity that's been hard-wired into the proceedings.

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Step Brothers (December 20/08)

There's little doubt that Step Brothers, the third collaboration between director Adam McKay and star Will Ferrell, instantly establishes itself as a far more comedic and flat-out entertaining piece of work than predecessors Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, as the movie has been infused with an unapologetically broad, gleefully silly sensibility that ultimately proves impossible to resist. The exceedingly thin storyline - which details the rivalry that ensues between two grown men (Ferrell's Brennan and John C. Reilly's Dale) after their parents marry and move in together - is primarily used as a clothesline for a series of increasingly zany interludes, with the majority of such initially revolving around Brennan and Dale's mean-spirited pranks on one another (ie Brennan attempts to bury Dale alive). And while there's little doubt that Ferrell and Reilly's gleefully absurd work plays a significant role in the movie's success, it's just as clear that the unusually strong supporting cast - which includes, among others, Richard Jenkins, Mary Steenburgen, and Adam Scott - effectively sets Step Brothers apart from the majority of its Ferrell-centric brethren. Having said that, the film does suffer from a loss of momentum as it approaches the one-hour mark - with the inclusion of a few eye-rolling predictable and downright melodramatic elements (ie two fake break-ups) certainly proving a test to one's patience. Still, it's impossible to deny that Step Brothers primarily comes off as an agreeable (if almost relentlessly ridiculous) endeavor whose unexpectedly high joke-to-laugh ratio buoys it through its overtly ineffective stretches.

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The Other Guys (October 2/10)

From director Adam McKay comes this nigh unwatchable comedy revolving around a pair of mismatched cops (Well Ferrell's Allen Gamble and Mark Wahlberg's Terry Hoitz), with the convoluted storyline detailing the partners' efforts at solving a financial mystery with millions of dollars at stake. McKay's notoriously freewheeling sensibilities, used relatively well in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and Step Brothers, prove a consistent and utter impediment to one's enjoyment of the film, as scene after scene has been infused with a loose, obviously improvised vibe that's ultimately nothing short of disastrous. The most obvious problem here is the pervasive lack of laughs within each and every encounter and interlude, with the various actors' increasingly desperate efforts at wringing laughs from hopelessly stale material resulting in an atmosphere of pure tedium - with Ferrell's long and aggressively unfunny rant about why a lion could never successfully attack a tuna standing as an emblematic example of everything that's wrong with The Other Guys (ie in which alternate universe is something like that supposed to be amusing?) There's subsequently never a point wherein the viewer is drawn into the surprisingly complicated and consistently uninvolving narrative, which effectively cements the movie's place as a misfire of impressively epic proportions.

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Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (January 21/14)

A distressingly underwhelming sequel, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues follows Will Ferrell's Ron Burgundy as he takes a job with New York's first 24-hour news network - with the movie detailing Ron's exploits alongside characters both new (Harrison Ford's Mack Tannen, James Marsden's Jack Lime) and old (Paul Rudd's Brian Fantana, David Koechner's Champ Kind). There's little doubt that Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues fares best in its opening stretch, as director Adam McKay, working from a script cowritten with Ferrell, does a nice job of recapturing the original's gleefully irreverent and off-the-wall vibe - with the amiable atmosphere perpetuated by the welcome return of virtually all of the first film's characters. (By that same token, however, it's clear immediately that Steve Carell's Brick Tamland is no longer the loveable idiot he once was, as Carell delivers a gratingly over-the-top performance that drains the character of all his affable qualities.) It's only as the movie shambles into its aggressively uneven midsection that one's interest begins to flag, as McKay, perhaps unsurprisingly, devotes an inordinate amount of screentime to sequences of an overlong and, more often than not, flat-out needless variety - with the filmmaker's notorious reliance on improvisation paving the way for a movie that feels, for the most part, as if it were made up on the spot. There are, as a result, a preponderance of scenes and interludes that simply don't work and wear out their welcome immediately, with the best and most obvious example of this an egregiously padded-out stretch detailing Ron's bout with temporary blindness (ie it's just pointless and unfunny). The shapeless atmosphere ultimately renders the film's few amusing moments moot, and although the expected battle between newspeople is as fun as one might've hoped, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues has, unfortunately, long-since established itself as a misguided followup that's unlikely to endure in the long run (which is a shame, certainly, given the cult-like status of its predecessor).

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The Big Short (January 4/15)

Based on a book by Michael Lewis, The Big Short details the buildup of the infamous housing and credit bubble during the 2000s - with the movie following a selection of characters as they attempt to both prevent and profit from the impending disaster. It's clear immediately that Adam McKay is looking to make the complex subject matter as palatable and understandable to the audience as possible, as The Big Short boasts several instances of narrative trickery designed to simplify (and, let's face it, dumb down) the material for average viewers - including ongoing narration from a central character and sporadic concept-clarifying-cutaways to a celebrity (eg Margot Robbie explains sub-prime mortgages). There's little doubt, however, that scripters McKay and Charles Randolph have bitten off much, much more than they can chew, with the movie, to an increasingly despairing extent, suffering from an influx of subplots that effectively drain one's interest (and make the narrative even harder to follow). It's apparent, too, that McKay's ongoing efforts at bringing a human factor into the proceedings fall demonstrably flat, as such elements feel shoehorned-in and lacking in authentic attributes. (This is especially true of Steve Carell's character's ongoing misery over the loss of his brother years earlier.) It's ultimately the overlong running time that confirms The Big Short's pronounced downfall, as the movie's second hour boils down to a series of fairly tedious sequences in which characters either panic or attempt to fix the coming meltdown. The repetitive vibe, coupled with a relentless barrage of information, compounds the film's exhausting and somewhat tedious sensibilities, and it's finally impossible not to wonder just what drew McKay to such dry, unapproachable subject matter.

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© David Nusair