On September 8, 1965, Bert “Campy” Campaneris played all nine positions for the Oakland A’s during a major league baseball game, becoming the first athlete to perform the seemingly impossible task. Not only did the six-time All-Star transition smoothly from one spot on the diamond to the next, but he pitched ambidextrously — meaning he would switch back and forth between throwing right-handed and left-handed to give himself an advantage over hitters. Of course, this accomplishment was no mere happenstance. Campy was given the opportunity via a special promotion for the popular young athlete, and he took full advantage. Sadly, when Will Ferrell was given a similar opportunity, he only managed to foul one off.
It’s within this basic premise — that a 47-year-old comedian would compete with the world’s best baseball players — that “Ferrell Takes the Field” finds its biggest hook. A bonafide movie star and giant of the comedy world for the last few decades, Ferrell’s most daunting task has to do with time management more than testing his skills with a bat or glove. Playing for 10 different teams during five separate spring training games, Ferrell plays about a half-inning for each team, donning one squad’s jersey for the top half before suiting up for the other in the bottom. Yet, even with only 45 minutes to tell its tale, the tone of the comedic documentary changes as often as Ferrell changes teams.
During the introduction, Ferrell lays out in plain words what he wants to accomplish. First and foremost, his endeavors are part of a charity drive for Cancer for College. The non-profit organization was created by Craig Pollard, a former college baseball star whose dreams of the big leagues were cut short by a cancer scare. Pollard, who’s close with Ferrell, claims he’ll be living vicariously through his friend on the big day, but what matters is the $1 million raised by the event.
Featuring appearances by current college students who earned scholarships to their respective universities after overcoming bouts with cancer, the introduction is almost too touching. Throw in a scene where Ferrell plays catch with “Campy” Campaneris, asking for tips and promising to honor what he’s accomplished (goal No. 2), and what comes next just doesn’t quite fit. Though there’s a smooth and sensitive transition to Ferrell’s third goal — “crushing ass,” aka making this a fun event for everyone watching at home — the balance between actual admiration (for the charity and Campy’s accomplishment) and Ferrell’s self-mockery as a baseball player can be a bit much as the special progresses.
When treated as light, easy entertainment, “Ferrell Takes the Field” goes down just fine. Watching Ferrell commit to the extended bit works very well, as well-built anticipation for whether or not he can field a sharp grounder or make contact with a professional fastball creates a giggly form of excitement. For his part, Ferrell goes through all the motions with vigor: He talks shit with the players about his physical fitness, makes faux-athletic movements while out in the field, and even throws a few loopers as the pitcher.
What’s even more interesting, though, are the subtle nods to the sport’s traditions. Baseball and all its superstitions, customs and general culture are ripe for satire, but Ferrell only teases us with brief tastes of brilliance. The best example by far comes when an infuriated Ferrell leaves the field and purposefully steps on the baseline. Die-hard fans will know the disrespect shown by this seemingly meaningless action, and its inclusion is all the more meaningful (even as just a brief shot). His beard of sunflower seeds (shown in all the trailers) is just as epic, and a few other minor witticisms pop up to show just how much this sports fan knows about America’s game. (Make sure you watch through the credits.)
But for as light and entertaining as “Ferrell Takes the Field” can be — don’t get me wrong: this is pretty funny — it never fully succeeds at its goals. The charity certainly benefitted, and for that, “Ferrell Takes the Field” is absolutely an admirable endeavor. But honoring Campy seemed to get the short shaft along the way, and the jokes included skew between fun for the whole family and TV-MA. Being on HBO grants the special the right to curse and infer as much as Ferrell wants, but two-thirds of it is entirely wholesome. Why not match that tone throughout, as Ferrell has done in the past with kid-friendly films like “Elf” and “Kicking & Screaming”?
Like much of Ferrell’s recent work, from “The Spoils of Babylon” to “Get Hard,” “Ferrell Takes the Field” is a great idea executed to a lesser degree. Audiences could certainly do worse for 45 minutes of laughs, but the opportunity missed makes the whole thing feel more like a stunt than a special occasion.
“Ferrell Takes the Field” premieres Saturday at 10pm on HBO.