Pompous, egomaniacal, insecure, angry, weak, melodramatic, corny, weepy, goofy, bombastic, and intensely emotionally vulnerable.
Those are the 11 descriptions that just came to mind when I gave myself the task of describing the quintessential Will Ferrell character. I’m probably missing some, or many, but when I think back to a career’s worth of performances—from the SNL classics like Neil Diamond, Robert Goulet, the Spartan cheerleader, and the sensitive drill sergeant, to film roles like Ricky Bobby, that one step-brother, Chazz Michael Michaels, and Ron Burgundy, to late-night talk show appearances—at least five or six of those words apply to each. When people accused the author Vladimir Nabokov of writing the same book over and over again, he liked to reply with a quote that I can’t find on Google right now and am too lazy to actually spend time looking up, but went something like this: “Artistic genius has only itself to imitate.” Maybe that’s true of comedic genius as well, because Will Ferrell has been playing the same character forever, and it still works.
Ferrell Takes the Field, an HBO comedy documentary (not quite a mockumentary, I think) that follows the comedian around as he plays in five spring training baseball games for ten different teams, in ten different positions, to raise money for Cancer for College, shows the curly-haired national treasure going back to the well once again. He’s playing himself, technically, but it’s that same narcissist blowhard we’ve seen a thousand times before.
Essentially, Ferrell is a 47-year-old man who seems not to understand that he’s being humored by these teams, and thinks instead that he has a real shot to make the big-time. He’s grandiose and self-serious when he plays, and heartbroken each time some new team releases or trades him throughout the day. You get the picture—again, we’ve seen this a thousand times before. Still, as much as I’ve grown accustomed to Ferrell’s posturing over the course of a brilliant career, I can’t help myself from laughing. This guy is funny. Over, and over, and over again, for the same reasons each time.
It’s a whirlwind day for Ferrell as he travels around Arizona’s Cactus League to five different stadiums, going by van and helicopter, frantically switching uniforms in port-a-potties, and trying to bond with his teammates in the moments before he’s set loose by cruel managers. It’s an ego-trip all the way, starting with the dramatic black-and-white opening sequence that shows Ferrell playing every position, and ending with a furious argument between Ferrell the baserunner and Ferrell the umpire.
After a few serious moments early on where the charity is introduced, Ferrell kicks off the comedy with a great line: “But there’s another kind of cancer out there—and it’s the cancer of doubt. The doubt in my abilities as a baseball player.”
From there, it’s a funny, sometimes weird, but fairly predictable journey across the desert. It begins with Ferrell trying to drum up enthusiasm at 5:30 in the morning with his sons, who are groggy and don’t want to leave the bed. “I’m about to break a 50-year-old marketing record that’s already been broken three times,” he whispers to them, in a milder version of the angry father who would scream, “I OWN A DODGE STRATUS!” on SNL. Ferrell is an absolute expert in portraying a kind of bourgeois pride that doesn’t seem to recognize its own frailty—he’s like your father bragging about getting a mention in the local paper for an award he won at work, but even sadder. And crucially, he never owns up to the humiliating moments. “A lot of energy in this room!” he tells the camera excitedly, as his children writhe in bed and groan. “If that’s any indication of what today’s going to be like, we’re up for an amazing day!” The Ferrell character never sees its own frailty, even in the most abject circumstances, and that’s a critical part of the humor here.
Throughout the film, Ferrell consistently believes that he’s on a level with the other players, and part of the joy here is watching the other players react. Some are fascinated, some are in on the joke, and some seem a little bit hostile at the man invading their workspace. He delivers an early monologue about how he likes to bring “two sacks” into the locker room—one of honey, and one of vinegar. The honey goes to players who are feeling down and need something sweet, and the vinegar goes to those who are riding a little too high and need to come back to earth. Afterward, he says, he makes a nice salad dressing. He behaves with an unwavering sincerity in the field, and he loves high fives. “This is what I was put on this earth to do,” says the man who was put on earth to make people laugh. “To play major league baseball.”
For baseball fans, the funniest moment comes just minutes into his first game, when he’s released by the Oakland A’s after an uneventful half-inning at shortstop. Billy Beane, Mr. Moneyball himself, gives Ferrell the bad news, and he reacts with disbelief and anger—”I was being professional,” he yells, in the middle of a delightful tantrum. As he says goodbye to his teammates (“I’ll never forget where I came from”), he grumbles out the first line that made me out loud, hard: “You know, Billy Beane, he’s all about numbers and crap…he doesn’t know about heart.”
He’s just like Joe Morgan!
Later, in another one-on-one interview, he promises to take the high road before delivering a final verdict on Beane: “He is a first-class asshole.”
The funny lines keep coming. While reflecting on how he became a baseball fan, the heartfelt speech about time spent with his father quickly turns to his memory of the trough urinals at the stadium, and seeing grown men’s penises next to him. He makes a solid play in centerfield to hold a batter to a single, and then milks the moment for all it’s worth, tipping his cap to the crowd and basking in the applause. Once, for some reason, he goes into a short digression about Disneyland. As a third base coach for the Cubs, he holds up actual signs (“Remember these games don’t count”) rather than signaling to the batters. When he finally bats, as a White Sox DH, film clips of Ruth and Gibson and other legends build up the moment leading to…a weak foul ball, which precedes a strikeout. When he pitches, he’s eager to break out a “slurge” pitch, so named because it “urges” the batter to swing.
The dream comes to an end after a stint in right field for the Padres, when Ferrell follows the example of Lou Gehrig and gives a retirement speech to the fans. “Was I the best player on the field?” he asks, and as an answer, he leads them all in a chant of “May-be! May-be!”
It’s another classic Ferrell moment—that’s all we’re going to get, in the end, but it’s also all we could ask for.