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Will Ferrell -vs- Bill Murray

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Will Ferrell got booed.

Yes, you got that right. Will Ferrell, a beloved SNL comic and feature funny man, was booed by a couple of guys in the crowd when I saw Ferrell’s new Everything Must Go. I can only assume that they saw the trailers which had been cut to make it look like a comedy, and they figured, hey, we love our man Will, so let’s check it out.

I wondered as they left the theater just how far into the film they got before they realized it was not meant to be funny but was a tough story about substance abuse and how it can take away everything you thought you had or thought you wanted.

These guys felt duped they did not get the Will Ferrell that they had paid to see. They probably also didn’t love Bill Murray in Lost in Translation.

Most comedic actors secretly want to play serious roles. Despite what a great gift it is to be able to make people laugh, and despite how much we all need to laugh in this day and age, often times the people most talented at this want desperately to show you their “other side.” Sometimes we are very, very glad they did. Sometimes, not so much.

Our two stand-out Saturday Night Live grads — Bill Murray and Will Ferrell — both came to national attention with their sketch comedy and memorably funny characters, followed by successful jumps to feature film stardom. Then Bill Murray went for the next level, the one where he’s been cast and accepted as dramatic, serious characters in starring, serious roles. Will Ferrell seems to be saying “I’m next.”

This is not an easy thing to be accepted by audiences who are used to laughing at a performer. Even the biggest stars often don’t succeed.

Will or Bill? Forget who makes you laugh. Who makes you cry?

The Challenger

While I understand the disappointment of those two fans who booed, I still got my money’s worth out of Everything Must Go. There’s no doubt that it is a little less than I expected.  If you’ve even seen the trailer you know the premise: Ferrell’s Nick Halsey gets fired and his wife leaves him on the same day. He comes home to find all his shit (remember George Carlin’s routine?) on the front lawn. Nick just sits in his easy chair and drinks. He interacts with three people: a black kid on a bike, a pregnant neighbor, and an AA sponsor/cop. Mostly, he reveals himself to be a drunk whose drinking has taken him down to where he’s living on his front lawn giving the world the finger and trying to make a plan. Eventually he decides on a yard sale.

That may not be eventful enough to meet the expectations for entertainment from Ferrell, but it’s just about perfect for slowly and carefully considering an actor’s performance. You want to know if Ferrell’s got game in the drama world, this is the film you should watch.

I love seeing comedians cross over. Steve Martin has made a few passages across the comedy/drama membrane. Jim Carrey has given it a shot. Even Adam Sandler has logged a couple of trips to the other side. Robin Williams, Jack Lemmon, Jackie Gleason, Tom Hanks even. And Bill Murray, well, that’s why Smackdowns have “Defending Champions.”

When he was younger, on SNL, Will Ferrell’s face nearly always seemed like he was pulling a prank and getting away with it. Now that his face has a few more years on it, the miles show just a bit, and he can get away with drama. Others may disagree, but I saw real depth in Ferrell’s performance. Here the face he shows is maybe too passive at times, but it is real, not a comic persona.

The Defending Champion

Will Ferrell supposedly said this about his competition:

I’d love to become like Bill Murray, who was so funny on Saturday Night Live and has gone on to do some of the landmark comedies people like. And then to add this whole other phase to his career with Lost in Translation and Rushmore. I always felt to be able to have something similar to that would be great.

Ferrell knows the risk of pushing forward here: some of his fans simply aren’t going to get it. I’m sure some of Murray’s own fans don’t love him in Broken Flowers or Get Low but will be first in line when he does Ghostbusters III.

Part of Murray’s success came when he started taking roles like Groundhogs Day and then Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. Finally, he just nailed it in Lost in Translation. The “it” has something to do with portraying that guy who used to be the real life of the party but has become jaded and cynical over time; a guy who wants so much to get his mojo back again but knows that somehow that is probably just not going to happen. Or at least that’s how he hits me. Opinions may differ.

All I know is that Lost in Translation feels like the perfect marriage of material to an actor. It feels like a transcendent film on the nature of our humanity and half of that meaning is conveyed in the quiet spaces of Murray’s thoughtful face.

Murray is reportedly one of the hardest actors in the world to get committed to a movie but people still fight over him like crazy because he’s that good and because no one else can actually do what he does.

The Scorecard

It’s a hard call but let’s lay a marker down. If it is possible to get to a theater and see a Bill Murray performance, I will just do it. That film becomes a review-proof for me. I’m going to see it no matter what.

Would I do the same for Will Ferrell? Let’s put it this way. In his comic persona, I know that some of his films I may not need to see, like Land of the Lost. But if he’s playing a serious character, then yes, just like Murray I can be counted on to want to see what he’s got.

Will Ferrell has enough mileage now to be credible. And, in the next decade, there is going to come a role for Will Ferrell that will blow everyone away and make them forget that he ever was a purely comedic actor. He has all the potential, he will get there for sure, and the only disaster would be if he stops trying and decides to give us only what we obviously want: more zany comedy, the kind he excels at.

Bill Murray, though, when he needs to pull it out, man, that arrow is right in his quiver and it seems to almost always hit its target. America’s biggest problem is that the man shows evidence of preferring golf over acting. Our loss.

The Decision

Both Will Ferrell and Bill Murray — two fine comedic actors if there ever were any — show their character’s layers in the actual mileage they seem to have logged as actors. They are, actually, both getting better with age.

Who’s the biggest seriously funny actor in America? It’s still Bill. Will’s day is on the way.

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Also, think of our Comments section as your own place to review and debate and disagree.

As we say, Bring. On. The. Smack!

About Bryce Zabel 196 Articles
Drawing inspiration from career experiences as a CNN correspondent, TV Academy chairman, creator of five produced primetime network TV series, and fast-food frycook, Bryce is the Editor-in-Chief of "Movie Smackdown." While he freely admits to having written the screenplay for the reviewer-savaged "Mortal Kombat: Annihilation," he hopes the fact that he also won the Writers Guild award a couple of years ago will cause you to cut him some slack. That, plus the fact that he has a new StudioCanal produced feature film, “The Last Battle,” shooting this summer in Europe about the end of World War II. He's also a member of the Directors Guild, Screen Actors Guild, and a past enthusiast of the Merry Marvel Marching Society. His new what-if book series, “Breakpoint,” just won the prestigious Sidewise Award for Alternate History, and has so far tackled JFK not being assassinated and The Beatles staying together.
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1 Comment on Will Ferrell -vs- Bill Murray

  1. I finally had a chance to see Everything Must Go last night, thanks to Netflix. I was surprised at the level of depth that Will Ferrell can portray. But as your review reminded me, he was amazing in Stranger Than Fiction, too. You nailed this one. Will is fine, but Bill is better. But Will’s day will come. He needs to keep doing films like Everything Must Go to prove he’s a serious actor.

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