Saturday, March 31, 2007

Blades of Glory

Let's consider two popular comic actors - Will Ferrell and Vince Vaughn. Both have made a career of being the best characters in mediocre movies (including Old School, that rare Frat Pack film with two "best characters").

Vaughn and producer Ben Stiller teamed up for Dodgeball a few years back, a nearly-unwatchable, painfully unfunny comedy about a bunch of idiots who play dodgeball against a bunch of other idiots to save a small gymnasium. The film has a good cast and a few jokes work (though many of these, such as Rip Torn chucking a wrench in a guy's face, appeared in the trailers), but it's a slack, uneventful affair that's pretty thin, reliant almost exclusively on poorly-executed physical comedy and cheap sub-"Mad TV" schtick.

Ferrell and producer Ben Stiller have teamed up now for Blades of Glory, about two cocky male figure skaters forced to compete in the Olymics as a couple. Formula-wise, it could be Dodgeball 2. Instead of Rip Torn, you now have Craig T. Nelson as the cantankerous, whacked-out coach who's got to whip these guys into shape. Instead of the high-stakes professional dodgeball circuit, this film takes place in the professional ice skating circuit. Cameos still abound, along with gross-out humor, slapstick and oversized, sketch-comedy-style characters. Stiller's flamboyant Dodgeball adversary has been replaced by Will Arnett and Amy Poehler as a creepy brother-sister skating team.

And yet...and yet...Blades of Glory couldn't really be less like Dodgeball. That film felt tired, bored with itself in a strange way. (Vaughn's visible boredom in his role was a big part of the problem). Ferrell and the rest of the new film's cast go through these sophomoric shenanigans with such fresh-faced enthusiasm, you'd think the antic sports-themed farce were invented last Tuesday instead of roughly 100 years ago. The scenes are sort of funny, the situation is kind of funny but the performances are frequently hilarious.

So, one more time, for the record...There is nothing original, sophisticated or culturally redeeming about Blades of Glory. It did, however, make me laugh my ass off at times, and kept me generally amused throughout. On the Frat Pack-o-meter, I'd rank it below Anchorman, Talladega Nights and Old School but above Dodgeball, Wedding Crashers, Zoolander and any other non-Wes Anderson films with Owen Wilson. I'm really starting to dislike that guy, in fact...

Chazz Michael Michaels (Ferrell) and Jimmy MacElroy (Napoleon Dynamite) earn exactly the same score in the Olym Wintergame finals. So, naturally, they get into a fistfight on the winner's podium and get simultaneously banned from competitive figure skating for life. Four years later, Chazz is the alcoholic star of "Grumbles on Ice" and Jimmy laces up little girl skates at the SportMart. Then, Jimmy's twisted stalker (Nick Swardson) discovers a wacky loophole in the Wintergame rules - Chazz and Jimmy can't compete in singles figure skating, but they could compete as a team!

Safe, obvious mainstream comedy fodder. A solid high-concept pitch. This style of comedy has become a formula because it works. Or, at least, it works sometimes. Fortunately, this is one of those times.

As Ferrell and writer Adam McKay do in their films (Anchorman and Talladega), screenwriters Jeff Cox, Craig Cox, John Altschuler and Dave Krinsky refuse to let realism intrude on a good joke, giving Blades of Glory a loose, flight of fancy vibe that keeps the proceedings light and watchable. Ferrell doesn't just play a macho asshole, he plays the most deluded sex-addicted testosterone-fueled doofus in history. Napoleon Dynamite isn't just a fey blonde-locked priss, he's a ludicrous exaggeration of every stereotype about male figure skaters. There isn't just a footchase, but a footchase through a crowded mall on ice skates while the chaser's wearing a business suit adorned with glitter.

It can be a bit much at times, and obviously any film with this much physical comedy and silliness is going to have some jokes miss their mark. But there are a lot more funny scenes than not, and a few moments that, if not exactly "smart," at least demonstrated some level of wit in the midst of all the stupidity. The skating routines in particular are well shot and designed by first-time directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck, who previously worked on those surreal Emerald Nut commercials. To use a metaphor from a different sport, I wouldn't say they've knocked it out of the park on their first try, but Blades of Glory is a solid double.

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