Will Ferrell's Glory

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Mark Fellman / Paramount Pictures

Will Ferrell in Blades of Glory.

Will Ferrell appears topless onscreen more frequently than any current movie actress. So to think of him for more than a second obliges one to contemplate, with a kind of cringing pleasure, his torso. The chest is large, white and flabby, suggesting a beached sea otter, and it's pocked with what looks like dozens of tiny, imperfectly attached hair-implant tufts. It might be a helicopter's eye view of merino sheep stranded on a tundra.

For Ferrell to expose this slab of flank might be deemed inappropriate at best, sadistic at worst. But because he does it without the requisite shame, it's funny, since the actor is usually playing guys who are cocooned in, and sustained by, an utterly unwarranted belief in themselves. Ferrell knows, as surely as his characters don't, that his body is nothing to boast about. So to display it as if it were worthy of a Muscle & Fitness cover is to tell us that they are as unself-conscious as they are self-unaware. Ferrell might be the fellow who ran naked across the stage at the 1974 Oscar ceremony, inspiring this ad lib by David Niven: "Isn't it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings."

For the Oscar streaker, a moment of notoriety and humiliation. For Ferrell, the route to movie stardom.

Ferrell bares his chest in his new movie — to show his hated rival "what a real skater's body looks like." That's just one similarity Blades of Glory (a great title, by the way) has with other Ferrell films. It's a sports comedy, like Kicking and Screaming (soccer), Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (NASCAR racing) and next year's Semi-Pro (basketball). Like Talladega it gives him a colleague who's also a rival (Jon Heder) and a villain (here the tandem of Will Arnett and Amy Poehler) who will surely be defeated in the climactic competition. Blades also plants a few sport icons in the supporting cast; as Dale Earnhart Jr. dressed up the race-car movie, Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, Scott Hamilton, Brian Boitano and Nancy Kerrigan lent their implicit blessing to the skateathon. Sacha Baron Cohen was in Talladega; Sasha Cohen shows up here.

The other thing Blades has in common with Ferrell's other comedies is... it's OK. Nobody in charge here — not directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck (their first feature, after doing the gecko Geico ads), not the quintet of credited writers (Jeff and Craig Cox, Busy Philipps, John Altschuler and David Krinsky), certainly not Ferrell — is even remotely trying to make a great film. It has the slapdash air of a movie that was a little more fun to shoot than to watch. To say that Blades is a little sharper than Kicking and Screaming, but not nearly so smart as the best parts of Talladega, is like taste-testing a Big Mac against a Whopper and a Wendy's Classic Double. In other words, Blades an acceptable Friday evening diversion, most of which will have run through your system by Saturday morning.

The pitch for this movie must've sold Ferrell on the project in about 10 seconds. Indeed, it's hard not to smile when you hear it. Get ready: two top figure skaters — blond, winsome Jimmy MacElroy (Jon Heder) and bad-boy Chazz Michael Michaels (Ferrell) — get into a brawl on the winners' stand and are forever banished from the male singles category. Three and a half years later, Chazz is drunk and disgraced impersonating a wizard in some Podunk lounge act on ice, and Jimmy is peddling sports equipment at a Ski 'n Shred. But they love skating more than they hate each other, so they agree to become the world's first male-pairs team. "As if skating wasn't gay enough already," a rival snorts.

In the commercials playing last night on every TV network in North America, all the clips were of Ferrell. And why not? He's the star, again in the role of the overbearing underdog, the big galoot who's somehow likable. But it's Heder, the geek from Napoleon Dynamite, who's the more appealing presence, and his character who has the cleverer backstory. We learn that as a child Jimmy was adopted by a rich man (William Fichter) bent on breeding champion skaters. "When I was nine," Jimmy says, "my dad insisted I be circumcised to minimize wind resistance." In his early maturity he has soft curls and a winsome grace; Chazz sneers that he looks "like a 15-year-old girl, but not hot.") When Jimmy is stripped of his gold medal, his father immediately "unadopts" him and dumps the kid at the side of a highway. Even his No. 1 fan, against whom Jimmy has a restraining order, complains that "It's embarrassing stalking a has-been."

Jimmy might be a kind of blond Boitano, while Chazz is from the butch, Elvis Stojko school. But the enmity is surely a gender-bending version of the 1994 feud between Kerrigan and Tonya Harding. In the movie, skating's criminal underside is personified by Stranz and Fairchild Van Waldenberg, a borderline-incestuous brother-sister pair whose long-skate routine has the theme "Forbidden Love," with Stranz skating as JFK and Fairchild as Marilyn Monroe. Arnett and Poehler's turn doesn't quite match Baron Cohen's as the French driver in Talladega, but Arnett gets points for smarming so nicely-nastily.

Viewers will pick their own favorite bits, and long soft spots. I liked the star skaters' ferociously competitive idiocy. Demonstrating his skin-scalding machismo, Chazz skates on bare feet, then Jimmy does the human luge on his bare chest. The on-ice routines (overseen by Sarah Kawahara, who choreographed some of Michelle Kwan's medal-winning performances) are both plausible and funny. Craig T. Nelson, as the boys' coach, is neither — why is he in a comedy? In this movie, the inspired bits and the misfired ones are so close to each other, you wonder if anybody involved with it knew the difference, or cared.

That's too harsh. What's important in this sort of comedy is not to hit the bull's-eye with every gag but to establish a genial connection between the star and his audience. That's Ferrell's main achievement during this hot run of his. Since his first smash, the 2003 Elf (still his highest grosser), he has kept busy and lucky: building a succession of hits, dabbling in the higher-IQ type of comedy (Stranger Than Fiction), cameoing in his friends' films, occasionally lending his luster to indies nobody sees. One of these, Winter Passing, grossed all of $101,228. But that's just pro bono work; these small flops don't taint him. The films Ferrell has starred in have grossed $876,885,086 at the North American box office. It'd be a stretch, but Blades of Glory could bring him up to the $1 billion mark.

At the end of Talladega Nights, Ferrell and Baron Cohen exchange a long, firm kiss, after which Baron Cohen says, in his faux-French accent, "You taste of America." That's Ferrell's appeal. He's us, and U.S.: a bully and a sweetie, deranged and good-natured, a jerk and a hero. He's the American taste: burgers and fries, supersized.