With Adam McKay’s latest feature, Don’t Look Up, hitting cinemas and also Netflix, now would make a fitting time to rank the director’s work to date. McKay’s career can be divided into two – a string of Will Ferrell-starring comedies and more serious satires. McKay is arguably one of the most influential figures in mainstream comedy behind films such as Anchorman, Talladega Nights and Step Brothers, holding a special place in fans of Will Ferrell’s hearts. McKay has seemingly ended his collaborations with Ferrell after a disagreement and has now moved into satirical pieces. His first, The Big Short, earned considerable acclaim and received Awards attention and he has continued this brand of film with Vice and now Don’t Look Up.
8) Step Brothers
Step Brothers is McKay’s only complete dud and what a shame with the talent involved. The conceit of Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly as brothers in adult’s bodies is genius but the film is aggressively unfunny and incredibly self-indulgent. It is expectedly juvenile in its humour but with a crass and nasty edge, the characters are nothing but annoying and the film’s tone is even quite mean-spirited at times. There isn’t really a narrative to the film and McKay just permits Ferrell and Reilly to perform their antics for the best part of 100 minutes. Even in lesser comedies, both comedians are capable of at least drawing a handful of laughs but even they can’t save this cynical and ugly film.
There is now a sizeable step in quality…
7) The Big Short
McKay’s first film without Will Ferrell, The Big Short deals follows stockbrokers who bet that America will collapse into a housing crisis and reap the rewards when it does. The Big Short is a mixed bag – it is very original and has many flashes of sheer brilliance. There are some fantastic performances – Christian Bale is the standout and plays against type, not sharing any scenes with the rest of the main cast. However, on the flipside, the film comes off as incredibly smug and boisterous and it has a big identity crisis tonally. McKay isn’t quite sure what the film wants to be – at times it feels like a knock-off of The Wolf of Wall Street and at other times, he regresses to his comedic roots. This deeply impacts the film as tonally it feels very disjointed and feels more like a collection of scenes (some outstanding) spliced together rather than a feature length film. However, originality is what is to be admired here despite the film not hitting all the right notes. (My full review here)
Another large step up in quality…
6) Don’t Look Up
McKay’s latest, Don’t Look Up is an interesting piece. It is an expectedly biting satire with many satisfyingly uncomfortable comparisons to reality. There aren’t many laughs here due to how close the humour hits to home. That said, Don’t Look Up runs into the exactly the same problems as his previous two films (The Big Short and Vice) with its obnoxious and boisterous tone. McKay directs with the subtlety of a sledgehammer and the film would have worked better if he had left more to the imagination, perhaps with the aid of a co-writer, who could have reigned him in. The film’s pacing is scattershot throughout but particularly in its first half. Reducing the length by around twenty minutes would have really helped tighten up the pacing as the film doesn’t need to be 140 minutes. There are a range of quality performances here with Jennifer Lawrence, Leonardo DiCaprio, Ron Perlman and Melanie Lynskey the highlights, Meryl Streep and Jonah Hill miscast and a very strange performance from Mark Rylance. (My full review here)
Vice is definitely watching alone for the Christian Bale performance and McKay is working with some strong material. Taken on its own merits outside of being an Awards film of its respective year, this is an interesting and unconventional telling of America’s most powerful Vice-President in its history. There’s a lot more to like in Vice compared to The Big Short as it features a tremendous performance by Christian Bale and it tells an interesting story of his rise to power. However, it’s unfortunate that the film runs into pretty much all the same problems that plagued The Big Short as it also is rather disjointed in its pacing and similiarly boisterous in tone. There is no subtlety to McKay’s direction whatsoever and he drives his political message home with a sledgehammer throughout which often crosses the line of being preachy. Whilst there are a number of comedic moments that work, there are also moments where the film is aggressively unfunny.(My review here)
4) The Other Guys
The Other Guys represented a slightly more serious affair than McKay’s previous comedies but this is still a rib-tickling buddy cop action comedy parody that has plenty of heart to boot. Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell make for an excellent duo – Ferrell’s sensible policeman has a hilarious but loveable back story and Wahlberg flexes his comedic chops, arguably for the first time in his career. There is plenty to enjoy with the star-studded cast with strong supporting performances from Eva Mendes and Michael Keaton. Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson also make for a fantastic cop duo at the start of the film.
And now for the top three…
3) Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy
Whilst many would opine that Anchorman is McKay’s finest piece, it only makes it to third position on this list. Anchorman is a hilarious and endlessly quotable piece that put McKay on the map and elevated Will Ferrell’s career as the legendary newsreader Ron Burgundy, many still citing it up there with his best works. There are many standout comedic sequences, especially a scene with a cameo where Jack Black features in where Ferrell’s dog meets an unfortunate fate. Ferrell has great chemistry with the rest of the news team, consisting of Steve Carrell’s Brick, Paul Rudd’s Brian and David Koechner’s Champ who are all granted excellent lines and moments in the spotlight.
2) Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby
McKay and Ferrell’s second effort is another hilarious comedy, with Ferrell playing the titular character, a world-class NASCAR driver and his rivalry with Sacha Baron Cohen’s Jean Girard and the implications that has. Talladega Nights is yet another endlessly quotable comedy with some standout sequences, particularly one where Ricky Bobby is in hospital after a crash and is convinced that he is paralysed. This film also marks the first collaboration between Ferrell and John C. Reilly and both share an excellent chemistry here, bouncing off each other’s lines.
And the best Adam McKay film is…
1) Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues
A controversial choice but Anchorman 2 is the rare sequel that betters the original. It is a more cohesive film than its predecessor and is far more intelligent with its humour, asking the philosophical question of what consitutes news and how newsreporting developed in the 1980s. There are many standout sequences here and again, a very sharp script written by McKay and Ferrell with some committed performances and some fun cameos. What elevates an already excellent film is its third act, where Burgundy faces an existential crisis that forces him to discover himself as an individual. Anchorman 2 is by far the best Adam McKay film and one of my favourite comedies of the 2010s.
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