The Best Will Ferrell Movies, Ranked

The Best Will Ferrell Movies, Ranked

Photo-Illustration: Vulture

This post was originally published in 2015. We have updated it to include Ferrell’s recent work, including this week’s Barbie.

Will Ferrell just turned 56. He’s won the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. His post-SNL movie career has been among the most momentous in the show’s history. He has headlined studio comedies for decades. He’s an institution. But he’s at a bit of a crossroads, no longer the crazy young guy from Old School but also not someone who’s fully pivoted to dramatic roles in search of Oscars. Although comedy remains his lane, he’s had less success with it in recent years. The body of work remains impressive, but his future is hardly certain.

This means that there’s a trove of Ferrell movies to dig through and rank. Now, to properly rank Ferrell movies, we had to put down some ground rules: No movies in which Ferrell is only a voice actor — this excludes Megamind, but not The Lego Movie; no movies that went direct to video — sorry, 1997’s Men Seeking Women, in which Ferrell was a supporting actor to Grant Shaud. And no glorified cameos — sorry, Wedding Crashers, Starsky & Hutch, and, yikes, Boat Trip. 

This list isn’t solely a ranking of the best films to feature Ferrell, though there’s an aspect of that; it’s more a ranking of the films by their maximizing of Ferrell’s essence. Which movie best captures the Will Ferrell Experience? As always, this list is purely scientific and unassailable.

Has Ferrell ever looked this dispirited and listless? What sounds like a solid, if high-concept, premise — a couple attempt to pay for their daughter’s college by setting up a casino in their suburban neighborhood — is DOA here, quite possibly the worst movie everyone involved has ever been in. Andrew Jay Cohen’s incompetent direction — the movie doesn’t even build up to jokes, let alone follow them through — leads to an airless, desperate comedy in which every cast member is stranded. Ferrell can barely be roused from his slumber; he seems exhausted and depressed, and it’s sort of hard to blame him. What if you threw an improv-comedy movie but no one bothered to show up? This is what happens.

Okay, it’s probably officially time to worry. Remember how, in that SNL book, Ferrell represented the hip future of comedy, mocking the smug boomer shtick of a Chevy Chase? Ferrell has never felt, well, older than he does here, doing a silly Sherlock Holmes accent, vamping like crazy and basically sucking all the air out of every room he walks into. John C. Reilly is back to try to recapture the old Step Brothers magic, and as game as he is, trying to get the band back together just reveals how oddly wooden and inflexible Farrell is becoming. There’s no real angle on Sherlock here: Is he a genius? A buffoon? There’s not enough thought put into this other than let Will and John be silly, and that is not nearly enough. Reilly, like co-stars Rebecca Hall and Ralph Fiennes, looks a little confused about what’s supposed to be going on here. So will you.

In case you forgot, the mid-to-late-’90s film featured a series of floppy-haired, dopey white nerds writing and starring in self-aggrandizing, amateurish, winsome “indie comedies” about how difficult it is for winsome, dopey white nerds to find love. If Lucy Fell’s Eric Schaeffer is the most famous purveyor of this, and his My Life’s in Turnaround partner Donal Lardner Ward wrote and directed this DOA “comedy” about an ’80s band (led by Ward, featuring Ferrell as the bassist) that gets back together when a rock-label seductress (Jennifer Love Hewitt, naturally) puts them on a reality show. This is ’90s grungy excess at its absolute worst — though it’s funny to see a doing-a-favor Ben Stiller and just-starting-out J.J. Abrams in supporting roles — and Ferrell is completely wasted in a test run for his Old School role. (Happy suburbanite who just gets in trouble when exposed to the seedier side of life.) This movie makes you want to force everyone in it to get a haircut and a real job.

Perhaps the thinnest of all SNL skit-to-movie translations — and that really is saying a lot — Ferrell bobs his head a lot and mostly plays second fiddle to Chris Kattan, something that would never, ever happen again. This isn’t even the right kind of Dumb-Guy Ferrell role: Even the best, most-dunderheaded Ferrell characters deep down know they’re awkward goofs and just want someone to understand them. This guy just jumps up and down a lot. You’re better off just forgetting Ferrell was in this.

The first Daddy’s Home was a mildly resonant comedy about blended families and macho posturing — it was silly but had something to say about how hard it is to be a good dad. Whatever emotion and nuance went into the original goes out the window for the 2017 sequel, which introduces us to the overbearing fathers of Brad (Ferrell) and Dusty (Mark Wahlberg). Spoiler Alert: They’re like their kids, just far more cartoon-y! The first film had charm and heart, while Daddy’s Home 2 is mostly a tacky, tasteless affair. (The idea of casting Gibson as a guy’s-guy jerk isn’t clever or edgy.) And whereas Ferrell made Brad a likeable wimp in Daddy’s Home — a sensitive guy trying to model a different type of masculinity — here’s he just a lame pushover. Let’s hope there’s not a third installment.

The big, fat, truly awful belly-flop on his résumé, this leaden reboot/spoof of the 1970s TV series has everything: ugly CGI; a dumb homage to A Chorus Line; crass boob jokes; Jorma Taccone playing a monkey; Matt Lauer. Ferrell has made a career playing unruly louts, but only in Land of the Lost is he totally devoid of charm: Even paired up with Danny McBride’s survivalist weirdo, his dull-scientist character never really sparks to life. Blame it on all that green-screen — or blame it on the movie’s unsuccessful mix of warmed-over Jurassic Park–esque thrills and tired bromance gags.

Decried for being homophobic and racist in some quarters, Get Hard is really mostly just dumb. On the plus side, it does demonstrate Ferrell’s attempt to evolve beyond the big-loud-dumb persona of his great early hits, but what he and director/co-writer Etan Cohen fashion instead isn’t that fresh. The star plays James King, a Master of the Universe type who’s sent to maximum-security prison for insider trading even though he’s innocent. Desperate to know how he can survive the ordeal, King befriends a black man (Kevin Hart) who pretends to be a former criminal so he can get paid $30,000 for prison-etiquette lessons. The better, more-daring version of Get Hard would scuttle political correctness, gay panic, and outmoded ideas about what constitutes masculinity. Instead, we get awkward penis jokes and a middle-aged white doofus trying to act black. The movie wants to open dialogue about class and race, but it will mostly just provoke dozens of “What’s wrong with Will Ferrell’s career?” think pieces.

A textbook example of how not to use Ferrell. He’s neutered down to a bland, depressing facsimile of himself here, a white-bread double-take machine reacting to the theoretical comedic stylings of Nicole Kidman. Ferrell bugs his eyes out and sighs a series of increasingly desperate spit-takes, but this project was probably doomed from the get-go.

One of those can’t-miss comedic premises in which everybody involved seems to have stopped thinking after the logline, The Campaign brought together Will Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis, and Recount director Jay Roach for a political comedy in a presidential-election year that had zero bite and almost as many laughs. Going to the Ron Burgundy–Ricky Bobby idiot well one time too many, Ferrell plays Cam Brady, a lazy, cynical longtime congressman running against a local bumpkin (Galifianakis). Especially in an era of juicy, tuned-in political shows like Veep and House of Cards, this misfire seems even more unforgivably tame — plus, its attacks on the Koch brothers are so inane, you almost feel bad for those wealthy bastards.

A little better than you might recollect but still pretty thin, Superstar was Molly Shannon’s turn to step up to the SNL movie plate. Her Mary Katherine Gallagher character wears out her welcome midway through, but this is jauntily directed by Kids in the Hall’s Bruce McCulloch and features an impressively generous supporting performance from Ferrell. He’s willing to stay out of Shannon’s way and let her do her thing: You can argue this essentially allowed Shannon to hang herself, but you can’t argue with Ferrell’s inherent generosity. Even when he’s mugging, he’s aware, unlike many comedians, that there are other people in the room.

Mike Myers was ditching Saturday Night Live for a full-time film career just as Will Ferrell was joining the cast. Ferrell would play Dieter’s lover on an episode of Sprockets when Myers hosted the show in 1997, but Myers also helped boost the newcomer’s big-screen visibility by giving him one of his first movie roles. Ferrell appears in the first two Austin Powers films as Mustafa, an ethnically ambiguous henchman to Dr. Evil whose two distinguishing qualities are revealing sensitive information only after he’s asked three times, and suffering traumatic injuries that leave him comically at death’s door. If, like us, you find the Austin Powers series more miss than hit, you may not even remember that Ferrell was in any of them, but his character’s off-the-charts anguish is an all-too-brief pleasure in this franchise.

Ben Stiller’s decision to return to the wacky fashion/spy world of Derek Zoolander 15 years after the original proved to be a critical and commercial disaster. Zoolander 2 is exhibit A of what can go wrong with a comedy sequel: It’s bigger, busier, more bloated, and a whole hell of a lot less funny. However, Ferrell’s one of the few in the ensemble who escapes with his dignity. Jacobim Mugatu is just as vain and ridiculous as he was in the first film, and while it’s clear Ferrell has better things to do than goofy cameos at this stage of his career, he delivers the crummy lines with bug-eyed gusto. Actually, it’s a good thing he’s not in Zoolander 2 all that much — better that you forget Ferrell was ever involved with this misfire.

On Saturday Night Live, Ferrell would frequently play corporate/office types: Part of his comedic power comes from the fact that he looks like a white-collar, middle-management drone, belying the lunatic underneath that placid surface. So it made sense why Greta Gerwig would cast him to play the stuffy CEO of Mattel, who insists he loves women even though he could be the literal face of the patriarchy. But the hilariousness of that setup is undercut by the fact that, well, Ferrell isn’t especially funny in the role. Partly it’s that this section of Barbie is the weakest, but it’s also because he strains to play this obtuse guy, which is odd since obtuse guys are sort of his specialty. That’s a bummer for a movie that’s otherwise pretty damn delightful.

Elf showed us that Ferrell can be perfect in a kid’s comedy, but it has to be the right comedy by the right director: Jesse Dylan, of How High, is no Jon Favreau. As by-the-numbers as these kiddie sports comedies get, this one is particularly empty and rote. You would think that Ferrell spending two hours screaming “LIAR!” at children trying to play soccer would be a lot funnier than this is. Suffice it to say: This will probably the final collaboration between Ferrell and Robert Duvall.

It’s not Ferrell’s fault that this adaptation of the Tony-winning stage musical doesn’t work, but he is a symptom of the larger problem: The movie never builds upon the play’s foundation and mostly just relies on casting movie stars (Uma Thurman fares particularly poorly), with diminishing returns. Ferrell just isn’t right for this part: The role is too stagy, too wordy for him, and his style of comedy is just too modern and deconstructionist to handle the Borscht Belt punning of Mel Brooks. Watching Ferrell here, you can tell he kinds of knows it, too: This was one of those ideas that sounds like a good idea at the time but turned out to be anything but.

Part of Ferrell’s “serious” period, this one is so serious, it’s a sleepy dirge. He plays an alcoholic whose life has fallen apart and responds by selling all his life possessions off in his front lawn. Ferrell tries to invest his character with a truly damaged, even disturbed soul — you spend most of the film waiting for him to explode — but then the film sells out and softens him up in the end. This is Ferrell tamping down everything that makes Ferrell great and calling it “acting.”

In some ways, this remake of Force Majeure is among Ferrell’s trickier dramatic performances. He plays Pete, a deeply average American husband and father whose buried resentment about his life comes to a head when, in a moment of panic, he abandons his family during an avalanche to save his own skin. If you’ve seen Ruben Östlund’s original, you’ve basically seen Downhill, but Ferrell brings a strong sense of entitled-white-man angst that’s nicely satiric: Pete is the lame, self-absorbed dad that Laura Dern’s Marriage Story character was ranting about. And give the actor credit: Once you realize that Pete is a heel, the movie can be pretty biting. Problem is, Downhill largely echoes Östlund’s superior version, and there’s only so much Ferrell can do to add new twists to that resonant tale of marital discord and imperiled masculinity.

Ferrell reteamed with his Other Guys co-star Mark Wahlberg for this much-watered-down, still not entirely terrible family comedy. The premise — a stepfather and father fight over their kids’ respect and love — is so basic and hackneyed that both Ferrell and Wahlberg get extra credit for just making it through this one intact. Ferrell is actually the subdued one here, the nerdy uncool dad, letting Wahlberg do most of the comedic lifting. This is such a sleepy, no-fuss comedy that even the stars had to be surprised it became such a big hit.

Less than a year after co-starring in A Night at the Roxbury, Ferrell appeared in this deeply silly reimagining of the Watergate scandal that starred Michelle Williams and Kirsten Dunst as brain-dead teenagers who become unlikely BFFs with President Nixon (Dan Hedaya). A cult classic that earned good reviews but little commercial success, Dick is, to our eyes, a bit overrated, despite a pretty great supporting cast that includes Bruce McCulloch, Ana Gasteyer, and Harry Shearer. Paired alongside Williams and Dunst’s airheads, Ferrell plays a nincompoop Bob Woodward, but the role doesn’t give him much of a chance to cut loose. He’d become famous for exploring his oversize id soon enough.

Every couple of years, we’ll get a painfully earnest American indie about a family of writers or intellectuals who are all either drunks, bastards, suicidal, or Deeply Tormented. (Invariably, said movie will be scored by plaintive acoustic-guitar music.) In 2006, that film co-starred Will Ferrell. Winter Passing focuses on Reese (Zooey Deschanel), a struggling New York actress who heads to Michigan to reunite with her distant, brilliant, nearly catatonic author father (Ed Harris). Ferrell plays a timid, God-fearing, guitar-loving pal of Reese’s father, and he portrays the character by never smiling and always … talking … very … slowly. It’s not a bad performance, but it is indicative of writer-director Adam Rapp’s approach, which is to emphasize a muted, melancholy tone to such a degree that none of the characters has much of a pulse.

The sight of Will Ferrell in a Woody Allen movie isn’t nearly as strange as the circumstance that got him there. Initially, the writer-director had wanted Robert Downey Jr. to play Hobie, a married man who falls for the alluring Melinda (Radha Mitchell) in the lighthearted half of Melinda and Melinda’s comedy-drama diptych. But Downey’s drug problems made him uninsurable, which helped Ferrell land the role. The truth is the dramatic version of Melinda’s life, in which she becomes involved with Chiwetel Ejiofor, is the far better one, but Ferrell does a decent job navigating a particularly hapless Woody-esque comic character. And at least he doesn’t try imitating the filmmaker’s wimpy whine à la Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity.

A perfectly cromulent, inoffensive Ferrell comedy, one that feels a little familiar and safe but still has its fair share of laughs. Jon Heder is a dull vacancy that Ferrell keeps trying to spur into action, but the rest of the supporting cast is a hoot, particularly Will Arnett and Amy Poehler as a rival skating duo. Relatively thin, even for a Ferrell comedy, it has its moments, usually when it just points the camera at Ferrell and lets him do his thing. Anytime Ferrell and a treadmill are in close proximity, happy things happen.

If you can get on this movie’s crazed wavelength, you’ll have a blast … but you can certainly be forgiven if you can’t. The whole movie is in Spanish — Ferrell’s inability to speak Spanish actually does get funnier as the movie goes along — and it’s shot like an old Mexican melodrama, with extreme close-ups and exclamations to the camera. It’s mostly to be commended for its rather insane devotion to its concept — it’s downright shocking that this movie exists, frankly – and a fun, spry Gael García Bernal, playing the heavy and clearly having a rollicking good time hanging out with Ferrell.

An amiable, minor Ferrell comedy, with some good laughs and a good heart. Ferrell’s love for sports shines through in this ode to the defunct ’70s ABA, allowing him to sport a crazy Afro and pretend he can hit a jump shot. Unusually, the side stories are actually a little stronger than Ferrell’s main one, thanks largely to a committed and sincere performance from Woody Harrelson. It can’t escape its sports-movie roots, though, and much of the fun of the first half collapses into Win the Big Game tropes. Still: a little better than you remember.

Sequels are tricky propositions in general, but comedies are especially daunting since the precise alchemy of a first film can be awfully difficult to replicate. Your appreciation of Anchorman 2 will probably boil down to how much you can stomach the pointlessly protracted and unfunny third-act battle royal — personally, we’re trying to erase it from our memory — but, all in all, this very hit-or-miss comedy works for the same reason the first film did. And that would be Ron Burgundy, whose move to New York and cable television does little to stem his rampant sexism or misplaced confidence in himself. Spottier and more bloated, the sequel isn’t nearly as hysterical as the original. But it’s most assuredly the second-funniest Anchorman movie ever made.

Ferrell received one of his two Golden Globe nominations — the other, inexplicably, was for The Producers — playing Harold Crick, a joyless IRS office drone who, predictably, knows more about numbers than love. This perfectly pleasant comedy-drama has a killer hook — ordinary man starts hearing the voice of an unseen author (Emma Thompson) who seems to be narrating his life — and Stranger Than Fiction allows Ferrell to show a more soulful, romantic side as he courts a rebellious baker (Maggie Gyllenhaal) he’s auditing. At the time of its release, this movie raised expectations of being Ferrell’s The Truman Show, but director Marc Forster doesn’t have the vision, and Ferrell didn’t have the pathos to fully examine screenwriter Zach Helm’s notion of how artistic creation is its own form of living. Still, it’s a welcome change of pace for an actor who got serious without losing his sense of humor.

Ferrell is about 15, maybe 20 years too old to be playing Lars Erickssong, the Icelandic perpetual dreamer who teams up with his probably-not-sister Sigrit (Rachel McAdams) to enter the famously kitschy (and undeniably delightful) Eurovision Song Contest — but with that age comes wisdom and, yeah, some healthy dollops of heart. This is as earnest as Ferrell has been in a comedy role since, jeez, Elf? And it very much suits him. Lars is doofy and doltish as many a Ferrell character, but he’s also incredibly sweet; you even understand what Sigrit might see in him. That’s probably because Ferrell has the good sense to stay out of McAdams’s way, who is wonderful from start to finish. Ferrell (who co-wrote the movie) clearly loves Eurovision, and his enthusiasm is infectious. (Also, this is maybe the best Dan Stevens has ever been?) The movie is still a little uneven and overlong, but the songs are wonderful, McAdams is glorious, and Ferrell seems in as good a mood as we’ve seen him in a long, long time.

Made right before Old School — and thus, the last time you could ever get Ferrell in a minor supporting role in a comedy like this — Ferrell’s Mugatu is nonetheless a wholly original creation, a fashion icon who, perhaps inevitably, plans on assassinating the prime minister of Malaysia. The whole performance is worth it just for the brainwashing scene, really. Obey his dog!

When he’s switched gears and tried drama, Ferrell tends to shut off his personality, letting his American-white-male averageness suggest flabby mediocrity and unspoken regrets. Ironically, he isn’t that different in his portrayal of Allen Gamble, a milquetoast NYPD desk jockey, and as a result, The Other Guys is that rare mainstream Ferrell comedy where his character isn’t the dumb, loud, super-confident asshole. Maybe that’s why this wacked-out spoof of buddy-cop movies is one of his most underrated starring vehicles: It boasts a different, slyer performance from Ferrell, who’s essentially the ridiculously straight straight man to Mark Wahlberg’s tough-talking, constantly frustrated kickass detective. The only McKay-Ferrell collaboration that the star didn’t co-write, The Other Guys may feature the best running gag of any of his films: Allen’s constant disparagement of his super-hot, super-loyal wife (Eva Mendes) never gets any more understandable or any less hysterical the longer it goes on.

Oddly, this may be Ferrell’s best dramatic performance. For most of The Lego Movie’s running time, he’s the voice of the dastardly Lord Business, a funny riff on the typical all-powerful baddie. But in the film’s clever and emotional third-act twist, we discover that Lord Business is just a figment of a young boy’s imagination, transforming his overbearing dad into a villain. In the live-action finale, Ferrell never overdoes the waterworks or pathos, and as a result, he plays a normal guy onscreen for perhaps the first time. The Lego Movie contains some of his deceptively simplest work, but think how important he is to the ending: This may be the only Will Ferrell movie that gets you teary-eyed.

Ferrell, as he has gotten older, has had a difficult time transitioning from the chaotic comedy force he was in his youth to a more settled, even mature sensibility as he eases into middle age. May we humbly suggest that Spirited offers a path forward? Farrell is funny, sure, in this underappreciated Apple TV+ riff on A Christmas Carol co-starring Ryan Reynolds, but what works best is how he’s able to wed his beloved Elf character’s earnestness with the weight and regret of getting older: a sweet-hearted person who has had to work his way to this point of sheltered innocence. Not all the musical bits work, but Ferrell’s commitment to them more than makes up for his lack of technical skill: This is the Ferrell you love as well as a guy who knows he’s hit middle age and is trying to figure out where he now fits in Hollywood. This is the right direction for Ferrell. More of this, please.

The second of five movies Ferrell has made to date with director and co-writer Adam McKay, Talladega Nights underlines an unheralded component of their partnership: Their movies look really good. A satire of sports movies and the NASCAR-ization of America, Talladega Nights doesn’t skimp on the slickness and excitement of the worlds it’s spoofing, in the process becoming a pretty damn good Days of Thunder clone. Of course, what matters are the laughs, and the film has thousands of ‘em — many of them supplied by Ferrell’s Ricky Bobby, who might as well be George W. Bush in a racing suit. Talladega Nights cemented John C. Reilly’s status as everyone’s favorite comedic secret weapon and boosted Sacha Baron Cohen’s rising star. But you may have forgotten just how great Amy Adams is as Ricky’s mousy, unlikely love interest. That’s another unheralded thing about Ferrell’s comedies: He’s smart and generous enough to share the wealth with his co-stars.

The movie that catapulted Ferrell to stardom — and gave him the bankability to make Anchorman and all the Dada comedies he’d apparently always been waiting to make — Old School is still funny, thanks largely to Vince Vaughn (who wasn’t able to capitalize on this the way Ferrell did) and Ferrell. Everything Ferrell does in this movie is funny, but, typically for Ferrell, it’s grounded in a normal guy’s desire to be a regular husband and dad … but whose id just keeps bubbling up at the absolute wrong times. We’ll confess: There are times when, after we’ve had our third or fourth drink, we start chugging out our arms and unleash our inner Frank the Tank.

Despite all Ferrell’s SNL characters and rowdy comedies, it’s very possible that this Christmas family film is the one movie that more people on Earth have seen from him. That’s not a bad thing: Even 12 years after its release, Elf remains a pretty stellar all-ages comedy that doesn’t dilute Ferrell’s manic mayhem but rather boils it down to its most accessible and lovable. Whether charming Zooey Deschanel or going positively apeshit at the possibility of Santa showing up, Ferrell’s Buddy is, basically, the sweet, sincere version of every demented oddball he’s ever played. Usually, you laugh at Ferrell’s characters’ naïveté, but in Elf, he’s a force of unadulterated goodness and enthusiasm, the unmistakable joy that radiates from all his performances coming winningly to the fore here. What also helps Elf’s reputation: Everybody involved had the good sense not to make a sequel.

The ultimate manifestation of the Ferrell aesthetic: Not the most financially successful Ferrell comedy, but definitely the weirdest and most aggressively insane. This is a movie about lunatics made by lunatics, and there isn’t a single scene that doesn’t feel uniquely inspired and batshit nuts. It was as if Ferrell and Adam McKay decided that if people were going to keep giving them money to make movies, they were going to make the wildest, most extreme comedy they could make: They were just gonna go for itAnchorman is the most famous and beloved Ferrell comedy, but this crazy, let’s-floor-it-guys obscenity will have you rolling, every second, start to finish.

The blueprint, really, not just for Ferrell, but for a whole new school of comedy that would take over the next decade: aggressive absurdism, a (often purposefully) flimsy premise existing only to stack a series of lunatic gags and setpieces end-to-end. You saw with the sequel how much special kismet is required to get this just right, but man, did this ever. We’re always hesitant to gauge the quality of a comedy by the number of compulsively quotable lines it has … but we’re nonetheless pretty certain that you can apply an Anchorman quote to every aspect of human existence.

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