I hope Blades of Glory (Paramount Pictures) isn't what it seems to be: the film that marks the moment the bloom came off Will Ferrell's rose. It's possible that this movie's wan air of mildewed familiarity is merely a fluke. If nothing else, Blades of Glory's semi-funniness is a sign that Ferrell should hang onto the phone number of his longtime collaborator Adam McKay, who's been writing with the comic since their SNL days and who wrote and directed both Anchorman and Talladega Nights.
Blades is scripted by a too-many-cooks team of four writers and directed by Will Speck and Josh Gordon, commercial directors who were responsible for those Geico cavemen TV spots that, as Slate's Seth Stevenson observed last week, hint at the presence of "someone (or someones) with a wonderful comic sensibility." If the Geico cavemen land the prime-time sitcom currently in development at ABC, Gordon and Speck may get a chance to display that sensibility again. But there's not a moment in their first feature film that's worth the caveman's stare at the end of that "roast duck with mango salsa" ad.
If you've seen a movie, a TV show, or the side of a bus in the past month, you already know the premise of Blades of Glory: Will Ferrell is Chazz Michael Michaels, a hard-drinking, fist-pumping figure skater who power-shimmies to Billy Squiers' "The Stroke" before screaming female fans. Jon Heder, best known to most viewers as the scrawny, slack-jawed Napoleon Dynamite, plays Jimmy MacElroy, an orphan skating prodigy with a bleach-blond winged hairdo, whose taste runs more to Rachmaninoff and peacock feathers. When the two rivals tie for a gold medal at the world championships, they break out in a fight during the medal ceremony and get themselves banned from the sport forever.
That is, until a stalker fan of Jimmy's (a guy who calls out, "I'm still going to kill you someday!" by way of affectionate farewell) discovers a loophole in the regulation book that would allow the two men to return to the sport as part of a paired team. But since there isn't time for them each to locate and train a female partner—a confusing plot point that's glossed over in the script—Chazz and Jimmy wind up in training as the first-ever man-on-man figure-skating couple.
After this cursory setup, Blades of Glory skates by—forgive me, but it's true—on one joke: the notion that two men figure skating together (and let's face it, the sport of figure skating in general) is really kind of gay. The problem with this joke is not that it's homophobic, but that it's weak. Ferrell's last film, Talladega Nights, was braver, and hence funnier, in its treatment of American homosexual panic. There, the hero, NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby, was forced to confront a real gay man, in the form of Sacha Baron Cohen's French Formula 1 champion. Ricky Bobby had to rethink his notion of masculinity when that espresso-sipping, Camus-reading rival proved fully capable of kicking his ass. The Ferrell/Baron Cohen matchup in Talladega Nights—not to mention the nude wrestling scene in Borat—have pushed this genre of joke to such an extreme that the old Friends-style homophobia gag ("We are straight men, yet we find ourselves in a situation that makes us seem gay! Whatever shall we do?") feels hoary and vaudevillian.
Of course, no project involving Ferrell is going to be entirely unfunny, and Blades of Glory does have its moments of loopy ingenuity, even if none of them goes quite far enough. A scene in which Chazz shows Jimmy his $12,000 Italian hairbrush ("I love this brush far more than I could ever love any human baby") might have developed, in a better movie, into a full-fledged hair-care subplot. The costumes and music choices are consistently inspired, particularly Heder's sky-blue, fluffy-collared training ensembles and Ferrell's treadmill-bound cover version of "My Humps" (see Josh Levin's slide show for a clip of this scene).
Will Arnett and his real-life spouse, Amy Poehler, play the rival pairs team Stranz and Fairchild Van Waldenberg, a brother and sister with an incestuous vibe and no qualms about using Tonya Harding methods to disable the competition. As he proved in Arrested Development (God rest its soul), Arnett can play a dimwitted, openly ruthless villain like nobody's business. His physical-comedy skills are superb, most notably in a very slow chase scene that departs from the fact that skates are impossible to walk on as soon as you leave the ice.
Jenna Fischer from The Office toils thanklessly in a straight role as Stranz and Fairchild's compliant younger sister, Katie. In a scripting misstep typical of this kind of thrown-together comedy, Katie is written as such a thoroughgoing wimp that it's hard to root for her or to care whether she and the virginal Jimmy overcome the obstacles to their love. Not to point to Anchorman and Talladega Nights yet again, but they do serve as examples of the axiom that in good comedy, even the small roles matter.
The actors did their own skating in some scenes. In others, they were digitally combined with stunt doubles to lend verisimilitude to the trickier moves on ice (like the legendary "Iron Lotus" jump that Chazz and Jimmy struggle to land without decapitating one another). There are also brief cameos from real-life skaters like Brian Boitano, Scott Hamilton, Peggy Fleming, Nancy Kerrigan, and Sasha Cohen (who, as a love-struck Chazz Michael Michaels fan, gamely sniffs Ferrell's jockstrap).
As far as the above-mentioned bloom-is-off-the-rose theory goes, I'm by no means anxious to proclaim an end to Will Ferrell's golden age. May he play the doughy oaf involved in a random new sports activity in many films to come. I just don't want him to get lazy about it.