On “Saturday Night Live,” Will Ferrell was a utility player. He could play regular guys — fathers, businessmen, doctors — as well as bizarre characters, central or supporting. And in any case, he was nearly always funny. He improved almost every sketch he was in.
He’s now doing for movies what he did for “SNL”: He’s always funny, even if the films he’s in don’t quite cut it. In “Blades of Glory,” he plays Chazz Michael Michaels, a disgraced, bad-boy figure-skater (an “ice dancing sex tornado,” someone calls him) who returns to competition by teaming up with his former rival to create the first-ever same-sex figure-skating pair. Ferrell is a comedic workhorse, as usual, with his mix of physical awkwardness and verbal non sequiturs (“I could not love a human baby as much as I love this brush!” he says of his favorite hair-styling appliance), but the film is only slightly better than so-so. I think Ferrell is a genius, but there’s only so much even a genius can do.
He’s paired with Jon Heder as Jimmy MacElroy, a goody-two-shoes golden child who’s like Shirley Temple on the ice (his signature move: the Galloping Peacock). As a young orphan, Jimmy was hand-picked by a millionaire (William Fichtner) to receive state-of-the-art training and be turned into a perfect figure skater. Now Jimmy is a wholesome, non-threatening naif who’s appalled at the rogue behavior of his rival Chazz, and it’s a tussle with him that gets them both tossed out of the World Winter Sports Games.
Jimmy’s old coach (Craig T. Nelson) gets the idea of pairing Jimmy and Chazz. They’ve both been banned from singles competition, but not from pairs, and while there’s never been a same-sex pair on the ice before, there’s no rule against it. So why not! Especially when it will lead to giggly homoeroticism!
It’s a silly idea, of course, and it’s a silly movie, directed by Josh Gordon and Will Speck (short-film makers working on their first feature) and written by at least four guys (including a couple “King of the Hill” scribes). It feels small and short, with an extremely simple plot — the new Chazz/Jimmy pair faces competition from embittered sibling skaters Stranz (Will Arnett) and Fairchild (Amy Poehler) Van Waldenberg — and a throwaway subplot in which the Van Waldenbergs coerce their sister Katie (Jenna Fischer) into spying on the boys to learn their routine. Jimmy gets a crush on Katie, but I get the feeling that angle is included only to remind us that Jimmy isn’t gay. (For his part, Chazz is a sex addict. He goes to meetings and everything.)
There are plenty of laughs, mostly courtesy of Ferrell and the awesome husband-and-wife duo of Will Arnett and Amy Poehler. But a lot of potential laughs are ruined by something that strikes at the very heart of the movie’s conceit: Ferrell and Heder are not a good pair. Specifically, Heder, while legendary as Napoleon Dynamite, simply lacks the skills to be a good straight man, or even a good actor. All of his set-ups for Ferrell’s punch lines SOUND like set-ups, recited in an over-earnest way by an actor out of his depth. It’s reminiscent of when an athlete (or Robert De Niro) appears on “SNL” and none of his lines sound natural because they’re being read without nuance from cue cards.
Chazz is the type of character Ferrell excels at — a self-important idiot who believes he is sexier than he is — and I suspect Jimmy represents the apex of Heder’s acting skills. As likable as the guy is, he’s not in his league here. The film is modestly entertaining, but it would have been much funnier if Ferrell had had a more qualified partner to work with.
B- (1 hr., 32 min.; )