Some comedians burn brightly then fade away. Surfing a hit TV series or breakout supporting role to a movie lead, sometimes even a hit one, they can become overexposed, or have too many flops, and find themselves returning to relative obscurity or more modest creative pursuits. Will Ferrell is not one of those people.
2015 marks twenty years since he first appeared on “Saturday Night Live,” on which he quickly became one of the most valuable players. Twelve years since he became a fully-flung movie star with “Old School” and “Elf,” and Ferrell still remains one of the most in-demand comic names around.
Sure, there have been misfires and flops along the way (this week’s “Get Hard” being one of them, at least according to our review), but his success rate has remained higher than most. Even in his worst films, or in his briefest appearances in other people’s films, Ferrell normally finds a way to make you laugh, surprise you, or weird you out, and that’s why he’s still at the top of the tree.
With “Get Hard” hitting theaters, we decided it was time to look back over Ferrell’s career to date, and we’ve ranked every one of Ferrell’s characters since he broke out into movies, from worst to best. We’re sticking solely to movies, so don’t go looking for More Cowbell or his “Eastbound & Down” TV role. That said, there’s plenty here, and plenty of super pointless arguments to be had about the relative merits of a great two-minute cameo in a terrible film vs a so-so lead in a better one.
If you’ve just got a few minutes, take a scoot through the rankings then take to the comments to express your vehement disagreement. And if you’ve a bit more time than that, sit back and hit play on all these videos for one of the chuckliest afternoons you’ll have had in a while, because even in the lower reaches of this list, there’s plenty of distinctly Ferrell-esque fun to be had.
38. Michael, Brian’s Boyfriend — “Boat Trip” (2002)
A deeply lousy movie that saw the ill-matched pair of Cuba Gooding Jr. and Horatio Sanz as two girl-chasing bros who accidentally find themselves on a gay cruise, this features one of Ferrell’s last pre-stardom cameos, and it’s a mostly wasted one, as he serves largely as a flat plot device, and as a representation of the film’s queasy view of homosexuality.
37. Jack Wyatt/Darin — “Bewitched” (2005)
There’s almost nothing to like in Nora Ephron’s completely ill-conceived meta reboot of the classic witchcraft-themed sitcom (bar perhaps a fun cameo from Steve Carell). Ferrell is as bad as anything else here, entirely miscast as a romantic lead opposite Nicole Kidman and tipping further into the obnoxious scales than you’d like, without serving the character’s redemption especially well.
36. The Man With The Yellow Hat — “Curious George” (2006)
As he’s subsequently proved, Ferrell can be an absolute boon as a voice actor, but not so much in this cheapo 2006 traditionally-animated take on the beloved children’s storybook character. It’s admittedly aimed at very young children, but it’s still kind of a bore (compared to, say, the similarly-plotted “Paddington”), and Ferrell playing everyman as the titular monkey’s human companion is kind of a poor fit.
35. Sky Corrigan — “Superstar” (1999)
The year after Ferrell goosed one of his ‘SNL‘ characters to a movie lead in “A Night at The Roxbury,” fellow cast member Molly Shannon got hers, when her ‘SNL’ character Mary Catherine Gallagher spun off into “Superstar.” Shannon had appeared in ‘Roxbury,’ and Ferrell returned the favor twice over appearing as both Mary’s vacant lust object, jock Sky Corrigan, and also, more interestingly, as her idea of Jesus (see below). It would all be really sweet if the film didn’t suck so bad.
34. Dr. Rick Marshall — “Land Of The Lost” (2009)
Sooner or later, every comic star gets their “Pluto Nash” or “Evan Almighty” — an expensive big-budget misfire that becomes something of an albatross around their neck. For Ferrell, it was “Land Of The Lost,” which reimagines the Sid & Marty Krofft show as a VFX-packed vehicle for Ferrell as a particularly irritating scientific variant on Ron Burgundy. The blend of broad comedy and action-adventure is an uneasy one, and Ferrell grates more than usual.
33. James — “Get Hard” (2015)
Ferrell’s biggest critical misfire in a while, “Get Hard” sees him paired with Kevin Hart as a wealthy wrongly-convicted white-collar criminal who hires his mechanic to prepare him for prison life. It’s a film that delights in being offensive rather than actually funny, feeling like some kind of bizarre 80s throwback, and though Ferrell’s as proficient as ever at manufacturing laughs, it’s one of his least memorable characters amid a film that ultimately feels like an unpleasant experience.
32. Cubby The Funeral Director — “Drowning Mona” (2000)
A strange, tonally fucked dark comedy that never really finds a reason why it should have existed, “Drowning Mona” sees local cop Danny De Vito examining the death of local hate-figure Bette Midler, with various suspects among the aggressively quirky townspeople (including a hilariously bleach-blonde Casey Affleck). Ferrell has an extended cameo as a combover-sporting funeral director, but it’s only slightly less unfunny than the rest of the film.
31. Gil — “The Suburbans” (1999)
Now notable purely as an early, pre-“Alias” producing credit for J.J. Abrams,
this was a low-budget comedy that sees Ferrell as the squarest of a
bunch of middle-aged guys who reunite their one-hit-wonder band for a
pay-per-view show. Ferrell has the advantage of knowing how to act in a
way that much of the cast (including lead/writer/director Donal Lardner Ward) don’t really, but he’s still got very little to play with here.
30. Phil Weston — “Kicking & Screaming” (2005)
Sadly not the Noah Baumbach picture that it shares a name with, this is deservedly one of Ferrell’s more forgotten star vehicles. A half-baked riff on “The Bad News Bears” that sees Ferrell’s mild-mannered suburban dad coach a kids’ soccer team of misfits to get revenge on his competitive dad (Robert Duvall).
It’s formulaic and not especially funny stuff, and the film’s never off
the chain to the extent that it plays to its star’s strengths.
29. Mary Katherine Gallagher’s Subconscious Idea of Jesus — “Superstar” (1999)
The larger part Ferrell played in this ‘SNL’-stable Molly Shannon
vehicle, was as her high school crush Sky (see above). But more fun than
that rather bland character, and one of the few bright spots in a poor
movie, was Ferrell as a vision of Jesus that visits Mary on several
occasions. It’s a little more lunatic, and a little more silly, and
therefore takes the edge off the sour notes the film hits all over the
28. Bob Woodward — “Dick” (1999)
After Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford, there was… “The Kids In The Hall”’s Bruce McCulloch and Ferrell. The two comedians play Watergate reporters Bernstein and Woodward in Andrew Fleming’s sporadically enjoyable, but very silly period satire, that sees air-headed teens Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams turn Deep Throat for the “All The President’s Men” authors. Ferrell’s smart enough not to do a Robert Redford impression, and though he doesn’t have all that much to play with, he and McCulloch are among the most enjoyable elements of the film.
27. Jackie Moon — “Semi-Pro” (2008)
The third and least of Ferrell’s mid-00s sports comedy trilogy, though at least providing Ferrell with a more natural showcase, this is a period basketball comedy that sees Ferrell’s gimmick-loving owner-manager attempting to win his team of losers a place in the NBA. It’s very much in the Adam McKay mold without the magic, and has a few funny bits, but it’s lazy and undisciplined more often than not, and Moon’s not a distinct enough character to stand apart from his predecessors.
26. Armando — “Casa de mi Padre” (2012)
This oddball Spanish-language telenovela parody looked promising on paper, but sadly proved to be one of those films that worked better as a trailer than as a full movie. Ferrell stars as a Mexican rancher in love with his brother’s fiance who clashes with a drug dealer (Gael García Bernal). He is committed and gets some new notes to play, but the film simply doesn’t have enough to it to qualify as more than an over-extended Funny Or Die skit.
25. Lance DeLune — “The Ladies Man” (2000)
An ‘SNL’-spin off giving a big-screen showcase to the show’s longtime star Tim Meadows, this had about the same kind of fate as 95% of the ‘SNL’ spin-off movies… The film provided Ferrell his first chance at a villainous role, as the leader of a cuckolded group of men out for revenge on Meadows’ titular sex expert, but there’s not all that much to the role bar a one-joke homoerotic wrestling obsession, though he’s having some fun with it.
24. Federal Wildlife Marshall Willenholly — “Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back” (2001)
Marking the exact point at which Kevin Smith started to transform from promising comic voice to self-regarding in-joke machine (though it has some good gags, mainly involving Ben Affleck and Matt Damon), this had Ferrell as the title character’s adversary, a bumbling Wildlife Marshall who has some difficulty with species recognition. Ferrell has more luck than most at actually wringing some laughs out of the material, but much better was to come.
23. Cam Brady — “The Campaign” (2012)
Yeah, remember this? This was a movie! It saw Ferrell as a popular
congressman who suddenly faces unexpected competition in the shape of Zach Galifianakis’
oddball local. Timed to the real-life election, it’s essentially a
chance for Ferrell to take his Dubya impression to the big-screen, which
was welcome, but a bit late, and while it scores some good blows on the
Koch Brothers, never really melded the broad comedy and the more
22. Hobie — “Melinda & Melinda” (2004)
In Woody Allen’s curious experiment, which takes the same character and tells two stories, one comedy, one tragedy, Ferrell (filling in for an uninsurable Robert Downey Jr.) plays the traditional Allen surrogate, as a struggling actor in love with Radha Mitchell’s title character. He does a decent job, but mostly proves a slightly awkward fit for the verbosity of Allen’s dialogue. Still better than Kenneth Branagh in “Celebrity,” though.
21. Damien Weebs — “Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie” (2012)
Ferrell’s always proven willing to lend a hand to comedy stars further down the ladder than him, and popped up for a brief cameo in the big-screen debut of cult favorites Tim & Eric. It’s something of a love-it-or-hate-it movie, but Ferrell fits nicely into the duo’s anti-comedy world, and reunites with John C. Reilly for one of the film’s funniest scenes.
20. Corbit — “Winter Passing” (2005)
Ferrell took his first foray into more serious territory with this mostly forgotten indie, the directorial debut of playwright Adam Rapp. We’re in indie-cliche territory: Zooey Deschanel stars as a troubled, self-harming young woman who returns home to her reclusive novelist father (Ed Harris) to find him living with one of his former students (Amelia Warner, who’s excellent, and should have been bigger) and Ferrell’s shy oddball musician. But for all the familiar beats, it’s well acted by everyone, and the comedian acquits himself nicely among the other performers.
19. Chazz Michael Michaels — “Blades Of Glory” (2007)
Its place in pop culture history mostly comes down to a quote at the beginning of a Jay-Z and Kanye track, but “Blades Of Glory” is pretty funny, if quite familiar. The plot — which sees Ferrell’s brash skating star paired with his arch-rival, Jon Heder as a male pair in attempt to return to the sport — relies too heavily on gay panic jokes, but there’s some inspired stuff elsewhere. And Chazz’s rock-star swagger gives Ferrell a new note to play which compensates for the slight flatness of the pairing otherwise.
18. Big Earl — “Starsky & Hutch” (2004)
Returning the favor for his “Old School” director Todd Phillips the year after he helped to make him a star, Ferrell crops up as an informant for Owen Wilson and Ben Stiller’s titular cops in the filmmaker’s just-ok remake of the well-loved series. It’s just a one-scene-cameo as a belly-button/dragon fetishist who takes a fancy to Wilson’s Hutch, but it’s a welcome note of real weirdness in a movie that could have used more of it.
17. Franz Liebkind — “The Producers” (2005)
There’s not much to recommend Susan Stroman’s big-screen translation of the Broadway smash translation of Mel Brooks’ original comedy classic — the direction makes Rob Marshall look like Vincente Minnelli, and stars Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick still play to the back row. But Ferrell’s a rare highlight, and his take on Nazi playwright/actor Franz Libekind stands aside from both the original film and the stage productions, and proving all the better for it.
16. Megamind — “Megamind” (2011)
DreamWorks Animation’s “Megamind” mostly plays as an inferior riff on both “The Incredibles” and the previous year’s “Despicable Me,” failing to bring much to the meta animated deconstruction of superheroes and supervillains. But it looks great, and Ferrell (again replacing Robert Downey Jr) has plenty of fun as the title character, a dome-headed, bright blue bad guy with a surprisingly soft heart.
15. Steve Butabi — “A Night At The Roxbury” (1998)
Ferrell’s first big-screen lead saw him go the route of many other ‘SNL‘ stars before him and try to take their trademark characters to the big screen — and again, it was pretty much a disaster critically and commercially. It’s not exactly a brilliant film — it’s almost entirely plotless, for one thing — but Ferrell and poor forgotten Chris Kattan’s club kids are so well lived-in by this point that it’s still pleasurable to watch them do their thing, even if there’s not much going on otherwise.
14. Mattress Salesman — “The Internship” (2013)
About the only shining light in a terrible, terrible movie, Ferrell’s cameo in glorified Google ad, “The Internship,” like the whole film, attempts to repeat the trick of “Wedding Crashers”
by livening things up with a surprise appearance. It doesn’t quite work
(mainly because, unlike ‘Crashers,’ the film around it is so bad), but
Ferrell’s still the best thing involved in the enterprise, playing Wilson’s
neck-tattooed, anal-sex-obsessed boss at a mattress store.
13. McDermott — “The Goods” (2009)
Really “The Goods” (which is bads) biggest problem is that with an okay premise about a
legendary car salesman, some decent jokes, and a cast heavy with
ringers (Kathryn Hahn, Ving Rhames, David Koechner, Rob Riggle, James Brolin, Ken Jeong, Ed Helms, etc) it all centers on Jeremy Piven‘s
smarmy, irritating lead. But Ferrell’s uncredited cameo is an
inarguable high point, a ridiculous, self-contained sketch, which sees him
falling to his death from an airplane dressed as Abe Lincoln, listing
his non-regrets while sex toys rain down around him.
12. Harold Crick — “Stranger Than Fiction” (2006)
Marc Forster‘s charming indie can’t quite sustain its fizzy, meta
premise until the end, but it did provide Ferrell with probably his best
“serious” role to that point, not that the story of a man who starts to
hear his life being narrated by Emma Thompson really falls into
the category of “gritty drama.” But Ferrell underplays nicely anyway,
tamping down the lunacy we often see from him, to turn in an
admirable everyman performance, with heart and just a glimmer of whimsy.
11. Ricky Bobby — “Talladega Nights: The Ballad Of Ricky Bobby” (2006)
The second and least of the five feature collaborations between the star and writer/director/longtime comedy pal Adam McKay,
“Talladega Nights” sees Ferrell play red-state NASCAR driver Ricky
Bobby, who becomes undone by his French rival and daddy issues. There
are plenty of top-notch jokes (horrible kids Walker and Texas Ranger
first among them), but it’s fattier than some of the others, and becomes
overly involved in its own plot in the last act.
10. Mustafa — “Austin Powers 1 & 2 (1997/1999)
The first time we remember seeing Ferrell (as non-‘SNL‘ watching Europeans, anyway) was his brief cameo in the first “Austin Powers” picture, as the Rasputin-like, seemingly unkillable, fez-wearing henchman Mustafa, which he then reprised in the sequel. It’s a little uncomfortable now, given that he’s doing it in brownface, but, both times, Ferrell gets some of the biggest laughs in the movie, even while being off-screen for most of his appearance.
9. Nick Halsley — “Everything Must Go” (2010)
Probably Ferrell’s purest entry into drama so far, indie “Everything Must Go,” based on a Raymond Carver short story, saw him play an alcoholic kicked out by his wife, who decides to sell all his possessions in a yard sale, bonding with Rebecca Hall’s housewife and Christopher Wallace (yes, Biggie’s son)’s local kid along the way. It’s low-key and somewhat unremarkable, but very solid, and Ferrell is excellent, suggesting he should flex those dramatic muscles more often.
8. Jacobim Mugatu — “Zoolander” (2001)
A role that he’ll reprise in the currently-lensing, long-awaited sequel, Mugatu, the absurdly-coiffed, Malaysian-prime-minister-assassinating designer villain of Ben Stiller’s fashion-industry satire “Zoolander,” gave Ferrell his biggest mainstream exposure up to that point. And rightly so: he’s a diabolically silly bad guy who pulls off the tricky task of being both funny in his own right and proving an effectively exasperated straight man to Stiller’s stupidity.
7. President Business/Lord Business/The Man Upstairs — “The Lego Movie” (2014)
What seemed like initially like a fun reprise of Ferrell’s more villainous work, which was nevertheless not as inspired as the rest of “The Lego Movie,” takes on a new level in the film’s famously ballsy third act, as we discover that Ferrell also plays the live-action owner of the Legos. It’s basically an entirely straight role, and Ferrell makes the pathos land while also showing the common thread between the dad and the ‘bad guy’ his son makes him out to be.
6. Allen Gamble — “The Other Guys” (2010)
Underrated in the Ferrell canon, but ripe for an “Anchorman“-style revival, this McKay/Ferrell joint, like all of Ferrell’s many double-headers, relies on comic chemistry rather than plot. But that’s okay, because Mark Wahlberg is just the right level of straight man to Ferrell’s even-straighter police accountant, Gamble, with his homely wife (Eva Mendes), his “Faceback” app that lets you know what the back of someone’s head looks like, and his very novel take on lion vs. tuna.
5. Chazz Reinhold — “Wedding Crashers” (2005)
The Will Ferrell cameo by which all Will Ferrell cameos are judged, if you wanted to show an alien the purest version of Ferrell’s persona and only had minutes, Chazz Reinhold would be the way to go. A cocktail of delusional hubris and abject pathetic-ness, the formula for which Ferrell should be allowed to patent, the legendary wedding crasher/mentor, Chazz, gets to play more diverse notes in a cameo than most leads get in a whole film, and be MA! MEATLOAF! FUCK! funny to boot.
4. Brennan Huff — “Step Brothers” (2008)
Another genius example of just how far comedic chemistry can elevate a stupendously silly premise, here Ferrell summons up natural, seemingly instinctive comedy gold with frequent co-star John C. Reilly (in his best-ever comedy role, most likely). Somehow the fact he’s essentially playing the same ludicrous, stunted manchild persona that he has relied on so often just doesn’t matter when the jokes, many of them pratfalls, prop-based, or sight gags, are as funny, and weirdly touching, as they are here.
3. Frank Ricard — “Old School” (2003)
The first part of the one-two punch that put on Ferrell on the A-list, Todd Phillips’ comedy saw the actor join Luke Wilson and Vince Vaughn as ordinary suburban figures who set up a fraternity. It’s, well, pretty fratty stuff, but Ferrell steals the show as a man who’s been able to repress the hard-partying demon inside for a while, but has quietly been dying. When ‘Frank The Tank’ breaks out, it’s like a force of nature unleashed.
2. Buddy — “Elf” (2003)
Often, Christmas movies are held to a lower standard of comedy if they’re gooey-centered enough, but Jon Favreau‘s “Elf” is the rare one that has as much wit as heart. Ferrell has total command of both those registers as Buddy, the naive, six-foot elf trying to connect with his hardass dad in the Big City. Playing his standard manchild character, with an added dash of innocent wonky enthusiasm, Buddy makes “Elf” one of the most uncynical yet funny comedies ever made — a Christmas gift that keeps on giving.
1. Ron Burgundy — “Anchorman” (2004)/“Anchorman 2” (2013)
He has a voice that could make a Wolverine purr and suits so fine they make Sinatra look like a hobo. He’s very important. He has many leather-bound books, and his apartment smells of rich mahogany. He’s not even mad that you ate a whole wheel of cheese and pooped in the refrigerator. He likes Scotch. He is Ron Burgundy, he is in a glass case of emotion, and he is Will Ferrell’s most inspired creation, on any matrix you choose to judge, especially those of quotability of lines, luxuriance of mustache, and ability to lead tight harmonies. Disagree? Go fuck yourself, San Diego.
Amazingly, because practically no actor inspires such completism, we discovered there are three very early Will Ferrell feature film performances that we have not seen and so can’t judge. Firstly, he’s has an uncredited role as a newscaster as his very first screen credit in the 1997 film “Criminal Hearts,” an off-brand, lovers-on-the-run film starring Amy Locane and Kevin Dillon. Be interesting to root this one out in light of Ron Burgundy, but not to the degree of sitting through the entire film to find those few seconds when we’re on a deadline.
Then in 1997, which means it could technically be seen as Ferrell’s first lead, he starred in “Men Seeking Women” (aka “The Bet“), which has a perfectly generic logline in that it’s about three single men who bet each other as to who can get a girlfriend first. In the absence of us knowing anything about it, we’ll leave you with this brokenhearted Ferrellmaniac’s IMDB comment: “Will Ferrell fans beware… this is NOT a must see.”
Finally there’s the one we’re most curious about/terrified of. “The Thin Pink Line” is a 1998 mockumentary starring Jason Priestley, alongside, incredibly, Jennifer Aniston and David Schwimmer (both at their peak of “Friends” fame), Janeane Garafalo, Margaret Cho, David Cross, Tate Donovan, Ileana Douglas, Maura Tierney, Andy Richter, Molly Shannon, Laura Kightlinger, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Mike Myers, and more, in — wait for it — a parody version of Errol Morris‘ landmark “The Thin Blue Line,” which appears (according to clips we’ve seen) to play for laughs primarily based on the closeted homosexuality of the Priestley character. This thing is real, people, be careful out there.
Tell us your favorite Ferrell character or moment in the comments below.
–Oli Lyttelton & Jessica Kiang