This weekend, Lifetime aired arguably one of the strangest films it has ever produced.
In A Deadly Adoption (SPOILER ALERT: Technically what follows is a spoiler, but really, everything we mention is made so painfully obvious by overdramatic foreshadowing, that it’d be hard to spoil anything about this film), Will Ferrell plays a successful writer whose past sins come to haunt him and his wife, an organic food entrepreneur played by Kristen Wiig.
A Deadly Adoption has everything you’d expect from a Lifetime movie: Murder, an affair, a dramatic confession, a kidnapping, organic snacks. Beyond its existence, there are no real jokes, but for Ferrell, the meta-parody really isn’t new territory. This is, after all, the actor who at the height of his blockbuster career, starred in a low-budget, Spanish-language, feature-length telenovela-style Western (Casa de Mi Padre).
Though he’s probably best known for his raunchy, big-budget comedies, Will Ferrell’s career is full of unexpected twists, roles no one else in Hollywood could pull off and his share of redemptive stories.
Here’s a look at six of his most redeeming movies.
Everything Must Go
One of Ferrell’s most underrated movies, Everything Must Go is a deeply sad drama masked as a breezy comedy. Based on a short story by Raymond Carver, the film centers on a middle-aged salesman whose life begins to crumble—he loses his job and his wife in the same day—as the result of his alcoholism. Over the course of several days while locked out of his home, Ferrell’s Nick Halsey comes to grips with his own mistakes, the need to seek help for his addiction and what it means to repent as he sells his belongings in a multi-day garage sale. It’s not your typical Ferrell movie, but what the low-budget indie lacks in laughs, it makes up for in heart.
Elf is a true modern Christmas classic. But along with the common holiday movie thematic tropes—like James Caan’s workaholic father missing “the real meaning of Christmas” because of his obsession with money and business—there’s a more meaningful thread weaving through Elf. Ferrell’s Buddy is the goofy, hilarious personification of earnestness, sincerity and childlikeness. The premise of Elf could have easily made for a cynical Christmas movie satire or an overly long SNL sketch (Will Ferrell dressed in tights playing a disillusioned man-child!), but Ferrell’s commitment to portraying a gold-hearted, overgrown kid without an ounce of sarcasm makes the movie a genuinely touching look at what being a child is all about—no matter how old you are.
Sure, it’s not exactly the most subtle take on pride, insecurity and fatherhood, but Talladega Nights’ self-awareness of its over-the-top tone is part of the fun. Ricky Bobby is NASCAR’s biggest, most brash star, but when an accident gives him a phobia of fear, all the people he’d mistreated—his best friend, his rival, his business partners—abandon him. After reuniting with his mom and estranged father, Ricky Bobby seeks forgiveness for his past wrongs and gets back behind the wheel to find redemption. Sure, it’s cheesy, but it’s also hilarious.
Stranger Than Fiction
In Stranger Than Fiction, Ferrell plays an IRS agent paralyzed by his fear of risk, and dedicated to a life of safe mundanity. But when he starts to hear the voice of a narrator, seemingly dictating the events unfolding in his real life, he must go looking for the source—because as it turns out, this author kills her protagonists at the end of every story. Like Groundhog Day—which the movie is frequently compared to—the film’s sci-fi set-up allows for uncommonly transparent self-reflection, as Ferrell’s character embraces the fulfillment of taking risks in life and putting others ahead of his own need to be in control.
Kicking and Screaming
Kicking and Screaming isn’t exactly Ferrell’s most critically adored role, but for a family flick without the twists of a typical Ferrell comedy, it’s got some big laughs—and an underlying message about fatherhood. Ferrell plays a dorky dad who reluctantly becomes a PeeWee soccer coach, slowly evolving into the overly competitive jerk his own father was. Sure, it’s predictable, but watching Ferrell scream at children while donning a tiger-striped track suit never gets old, and watching him attempt to rediscover his own humanity is actually prettying touching.
The Lego Movie
Considering it’s a movie about blocks, The Lego Movie is surprisingly nuanced in its themes and rich in its storytelling. It’s hard not to spoil the movie by talking about the plot, but Ferrell’s greedy President Business and Chris Pratt’s lowly Emmett prove to be the perfect juxtaposition of villain and hero. The Lego Movie is loud, colorful and fun, but below the surface, it’s a film about innocence, creativity, courage and joy.
Jesse Carey is a mainstay on the weekly RELEVANT Podcast and member of RELEVANT's executive board. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife and two kids.