Because for all the money movies like The Campaign, Get Hard, Daddy’s Home, and even Anchorman 2 make, they barely register a blip in the cultural zeitgeist. Ferrell’s best-known characters—the over-eager Buddy of Elf, the egotistical Ron Burgundy of the original Anchorman, the Bush-era parody of American exceptionalism that is Ricky Bobby in Talladega Nights—have been replaced with total vacuums. Too often, Ferrell is called on to just play “himself,” i.e. a slightly milquetoast suburban dad-type who gets sucked into some kind of dodgy enterprise and quickly overreacts.
Ferrell’s greatest collaborations were with the director Adam McKay (with whom he made Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers, and the cop comedy The Other Guys), a veteran SNL writer who encourages improvisation on his sets. But McKay and Ferrell struggled to crack the Anchorman sequel together, trying to turn it into a ham-fisted treatise on the evil of cable news, and since then McKay has gone on to Oscar success as the director of the more serious The Big Short (his next project is about the vice presidency of Dick Cheney).
While Ferrell can pull off playing audience surrogates in character, such roles are a huge waste of his talent. His best work always involves building a character from the ground up, and then constructing the film around it. The actor’s film career exploded after the surprise success of Old School (2003), in which he played the manic “Frank the Tank,” a new father in the middle of an extended nervous breakdown, alongside the more straight-laced Luke Wilson and Vince Vaughn. It was the kind of role Ferrell would go on to excel at: carefully developed sketch characters that contain heightened elements, but that nonetheless feel like real humans worthy of an entire movie.
At the same time, after Old School, Hollywood tried slotting Ferrell into more traditional leading-man roles. Woody Allen picked him as one of the many actors to play an Allen stand-in (like Jason Biggs, Kenneth Branagh, Owen Wilson, and many others) in Melinda and Melinda, one of the director’s most forgettable efforts. Ferrell played the bewildered Darrin in Nora Ephron’s misguided reboot of Bewitched, where his performance mostly consisted of confused yelling. He was a bizarre choice to play the depressed lead of Stranger Than Fiction, a flop meta-commentary on the strictures of storytelling, and he seemed completely adrift in the big-budget family adventure Land of the Lost, a CGI-laden claptrap that doesn’t recognize that Ferrell is the movie’s best special effect.
Ferrell’s more antic, sketch-based brand of comedy dominated the genre in the mid-2000s. The rise of Judd Apatow, who favors slow, lo-fi storytelling in the mold of James L. Brooks, has introduced a new norm that doesn’t suit Ferrell as well. A comedy like The House, written by the team behind the Neighbors movies, is aiming for something in the middle. Ferrell and Poehler play well-meaning parents trying to earn money for their kid’s college fund by running an illegal casino in their basement; things obviously escalate (from a “criminal element” point of view), but it unfortunately never bends into surrealism.