Will Ferrell has always been funny, but he’s never just been funny. From the start, Ferrell’s gifts have included the ability to find vulnerability in even his broadest characters. What is Zoolander’s Mugatu if not a man in pain and in need of validation? At heart, isn’t Ron Burgundy’s primary conflict the one between his fragile ego and the desire to understand the world around him? It’s no accident that Ferrell made his big-screen breakthrough in Old School playing a man stumbling out of a life of weekend trips to the Home Depot and into an existential crisis. It takes a rare sort of actor to summon up pathos while shouting, “We’re going streaking!”
That Ferrell is as much actor as funnyman has been key to his success from the start, though he’s recently hit comedic choppy waters. It’s been a long time since Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues in 2013, with a lot of unpleasantness in the years in between. But by letting Ferrell play a character every bit as reflective as he is amusing, the new Downhill both breaks the pattern and suggests a way forward that doesn’t involve sweaty prop humor involving Victorian selfie sticks, one of the better gags in 2018’s Holmes & Watson. After years in the comedic wilderness, it’s probably best if we let Ferrell take things a little more seriously for a while.
It’s worth considering how Ferrell’s career got to the point where it seemed like it needed a new direction. Back in 2012, he had reached an unparalleled peak, to the extent that everything he touched seemed more intriguing because of his involvement. Funny or Die, the company he founded with comedy partner Adam McKay and writer Chris Henchy, had started to hit its stride, thanks to projects like Between Two Ferns and Billy on the Street. Ferrell and McKay’s Gary Sanchez Productions continued apace as well, with Eastbound & Down on HBO and a film slate that included Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie, the Kirsten Dunst–starring Bachelorette, and a pair of Ferrell movies. The higher profile of that pair, The Campaign, cast Ferrell opposite Zach Galifianakis in a send-up of contemporary politics with some slashing bits of satire. The other, the Spanish-language comedy Casa De Mi Padre, saw a straight-faced Ferrell playing the son of a Mexican rancher, a proposition that was delightful to some and puzzling to many more. In Variety, Justin Chang wrote its “conceptual goofiness and technical prowess prove inadequate substitutes for the zesty characterizations and sharp comedic interplay that would have made it more than just an agreeable curio.” Even so, Casa De Mi Padre was the sort of agreeable curio no one else was making. Besides, 2012 kicked off with an arguably even stranger project: Asked by Pabst to bring some heat to the flagging Old Milwaukee brand, Ferrell traveled to Terre Haute, Indiana; Davenport, Iowa; and Milwaukee to film a series of strange ads that aired during the Super Bowl—but only in those three markets. What might have seemed like a mercenary gesture coming from someone else had an experimental energy and an oddball edge.
So when did things start to turn iffy? 2013 brought the pretty good sequel Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues. 2014’s The LEGO Movie gave Ferrell one of his best roles to date, letting him go villainously over the top as President Business but also play a misguided dad who learns to reconnect with his kids. 2015 is another story. Get Hard, in which Ferrell costars opposite Kevin Hart, begins well enough, with Ferrell’s talented-with-numbers-and-little-else hedge fund manager taking the fall for a greedy 1 percenter. The setup invited the same sort of Trojan-horse commentary that Ferrell and McKay brought to The Other Guys, but the Etan Cohen–directed film quickly veers into iffier and iffier territory via a string of rape jokes, some half-defused gay panic humor, and a stretch in which Ferrell’s character joins a gang. The film largely repelled critics—unless A.O. Scott’s “not quite as awful as it could have been” counts as praise—but became a hit anyway, and it’s hard to argue with a hit.
See also: Daddy’s Home, which at least goes down a little more easily than Get Hard thanks to a handful of inspired ideas and the surprisingly effective team of Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg. It also doesn’t always go for the obvious jokes from a scenario that finds Ferrell’s sensitive radio executive competing with an oft-shirtless Wahlberg’s macho man for the affections of the extended family they share, touching on some anxieties about the demands of fatherhood and the expectations of 21st-century masculinity. Mostly, however, it struggles to put any spin on its big, broad physical comedy. Anchorman featured a ridiculous fight scene that piled joke on top of joke and then gave Ferrell the perfect button to underscore its absurdity: “Boy, that escalated quickly.” In Daddy’s Home he falls down in front of his kids after Wahlberg crashes into him on a zipline.
The years that followed brought variations on what Ferrell had done before: Zoolander 2, Daddy’s Home 2 (a lesser sequel made worse by the mistaken belief that Mel Gibson is funny), and The House. The lattermost feels at first like an attempt to recapture a bit of the old spark. Ferrell, Amy Poehler, and Jason Mantzoukas could theoretically make any premise work, including the not-bad idea of some ordinary suburbanites getting in over their heads after opening a home casino. Yet Ferrell seems distant and the jokes just aren’t there. Instead, cowriter and director Andrew Jay Cohen leans on surprisingly explicit violence followed by characters delivering dry “that escalated quickly”–like observations to diminishing returns until, eventually, the movie just ends.
Ferrell’s 2018 film Holmes & Watson, by contrast, clocks in at a slim 90 minutes yet feels endless. Directed by Get Hard’s Cohen, the film reteams Ferrell with his Step Brothers costar John C. Reilly, which would undoubtedly work better if the film didn’t find them adopting silly accents while trying to sell variations on the same what-if-modern-stuff-existed-in-Victorian-England joke, like a red “Make England Great Again” fez. Released with little fanfare and to hostile reviews on Christmas, it died an even quieter death than The House. Whereas Ferrell’s mere presence once made a project more enticing, after Holmes & Watson it started to seem like a warning sign.
The following April, McKay and Ferrell announced a by-all-reports amicable split in which both announced plans to step away from Gary Sanchez Productions to pursue individual projects. For McKay, that’s opened the door to pursue work like a movie about Theranos and an HBO show about the Showtime Lakers. Ferrell’s next steps, however, have remained a little less clear.
Downhill might help clarify that. Codirected by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (The Way, Way Back), the film remakes Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s 2014 film Force Majeure, and doesn’t always benefit from comparison. Ferrell plays Pete Staunton, a father of two still shaken by his father’s recent death. Julia Louis-Dreyfus costars as his wife, Billie, whose frustration with her husband is evident even before their trip to a luxurious ski resort hits a crisis of Pete’s making. After sitting down for an outdoor lunch, they watch as a controlled avalanche starts to look as if it’s not so controlled after all, threatening to engulf the resort. Pausing only to grab his phone, Pete flees the scene as the wave of snow hits, leaving his family to face whatever fate might bring their way and shaking the fault lines of his marriage.
Downhill softens the conflict of the original—particularly with its shrug of an ending—and throws in some tired culture clash comedy involving Pete and Billie’s discomfort with the more relaxed European sexual mores espoused by their resort hostess Charlotte (though Miranda Otto has fun deadpanning invasive questions to Louis-Dreyfus). But it also turns one key scene into a kind of miniature Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (with Zach Woods and Zoë Chao in the younger couple slot) and gives the leads a lot of room in which to work. That Louis-Dreyfus delivers a complex performance doesn’t come as much of a surprise on the heels of Veep, though scenes in which she expresses Billie’s terror touch on emotions she’s never had a chance to play before. Meanwhile, this is the richest role Ferrell has had in a long time, and he runs with the opportunity.
His work here is both new and familiar. Ferrell has always made great use of his soulful, doubting eyes, but in Downhill he proves they can be just as effective at suggesting a man in crisis when removed from the absurdity and pratfalls of his comedies. Much of Downhill finds him trying to swallow panic as he both contemplates mortality and starts to realize he may have pushed his marriage past the point of no return. The film lets him go big in a funny-sad drunk scene, but he’s just as good in scenes in which Pete and Billie let their problems simmer and go unspoken before channeling their frustration into a passive-aggressive contest for their sons’ affections. It’s both a reminder of how terrific Ferrell can be with the right material and evidence that now might be a good time for him to play it more seriously. Unburdened of the expectations of big studio comedies, he seems looser and more thoughtful than he has in recent years.
It’s not the first time he’s played it mostly straight. For the earnest but unremarkable Winter Passing in 2005, he reunited with his Elf costar Zooey Deschanel to play a small-town eccentric. Ferrell had better luck the next year with Stranger Than Fiction, in which he plays an ordinary man who believes he’s going mad before realizing his existence has unseen ties to the work of an acclaimed author (Emma Thompson) who is famous for her characters’ tragic deaths. He beautifully underplays the alcoholic protagonist of 2011’s Everything Must Go, a Raymond Carver short story filtered through a Sundance-friendly sensibility.
But some of the best evidence that Ferrell should go deeper and darker more often comes from his comedies. The image of Ferrell in festive, way-too-small costume undoubtedly helped lure audiences to Elf, but it’s his openhearted work as Buddy—a character always on the verge of being crushed by the world he’s just discovered—that makes the movie. Talladega Nights is a goofy film in which Ferrell’s Ricky Bobby has to fend off a cougar as part of his training, but Ferrell also makes it convincing as the story of a man who has to get over himself, open his mind, and recognize what truly matters. Even going back to his time on Saturday Night Live, Ferrell turned George W. Bush into a three-dimensional parody, playing him less as a stock buffoon than an overgrown frat boy who’d gotten in way over his head, an unthinking blunderer unable to see the harm he was doing. He was awful, but also kind of pitiable.
With the right material—and Downhill is mostly the right material—he can find dramatic depths in any scenario, whether silly or straight. For his entire career, it’s been the roles that don’t give Ferrell enough to do in which he looks lost.
Keith Phipps is a writer and editor specializing in film and TV. Formerly: Uproxx, The Dissolve, and The A.V. Club.