Few actors can boast as wide ranging a filmography as Will Ferrell, but his movie career had humble beginnings. The Saturday Night Live alum followed a path similar to other Not Ready For Prime Time Players — co-starring in movies that were essentially longform SNL skits. Although Ferrell played it relatively safe initially, he quickly showed he wasn't risk-averse.
There's two sides to the USC grad's film career. On the one hand, Ferrell has an uncanny knack for playing clueless buffoons, most notably in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and Old School. Yet he also starred in a Woody Allen film and stood toe-to-toe with Academy Award winners Dustin Hoffman, Nicole Kidman, Robert Duvall, and Emma Thompson in various other movies. Ferrell has displayed a thoughtful and tender side most people wouldn't expect from the man who turned overzealous cowbell playing into a pop culture catchphrase.
Because Ferrell's catalog of films is so diverse, putting together this list was a challenge, particularly because so many of his notable roles have been unforgettable cameos. While Chazz Reinhold in Wedding Crashers and Big Earl in Starsky & Hutch are certainly memorable, they didn't make the cut because they didn't quite have enough of that Ferrell Magic. With that in mind, here's EW's ranking of the 15 best Will Ferrell roles.
A Night at the Roxbury is based on the long-running SNL skit “The Roxbury Guys,” which showcased Chris Kattan and Ferrell as two dim-witted nightclub regulars with no social skills who constantly bob their heads to the Haddaway song, “What is Love?” An enormous hit, the recurring skit featured the likes of Tom Hanks, Sylvester Stallone, Cameron Diaz, Pamela Anderson, Martin Short, Alec Baldwin, and Jim Carrey when each hosted SNL.
The film itself works as an extension of the sketch, where viewers learn that the two rayon-suited men are moronic brothers Doug (Kattan) and Steve Butabi (Ferrell), who dream of owning a nightclub. The film was not critically acclaimed but EW’s Lisa Schwarzbaum still found something to like about it, stating, “Weirdly, opening the story out to give the bros a bad-taste Beverly Hills home, ostensible career ambitions, and unlikely romantic possibilities helps make the boys interestingly pathetic, not just obnoxious.”
Although critically panned, A Night at the Roxbury contains the charm of many other Lorne Michaels-produced movies from the 1990s like Tommy Boy and Wayne’s World, where lovable losers find success despite their enormous shortcomings.
Yeah, yeah we get it. We’re kind of breaking our own rule about Ferrell not quite having a meaty enough role for inclusion in this list but considering how memorable Mustafa (Ferrell) is and that the character stands out in two separate films, exceptions were made. After all, EW’s Owen Gleiberman, who reviewed both Austin Powers films Ferrell appeared in, International Man of Mystery and The Spy Who Shagged Me, gave each B grades and a big part of that is due to its ensemble cast. Though the role of Mustafa was small, it’s even more impactful upon reflection.
Ferrell wasn’t THE Will Ferrell in 1997 when International Man of Mystery was released. At the time the film was released, he was just finishing his second year on Saturday Night Live. And while Ferrell had success early as a Spartan cheerleader on the show, there wasn’t any indication that he’d turn into the star we all know so well. So watching Ferrell as Mustafa after the fact is like looking into a comedy time machine.
Dr. Evil’s (Mike Myers) weapons designer also has the rare distinction of being killed twice in two different movies. In International Man of Mystery, an error where Mustafa is unable to anticipate feline complications to the reanimation process leads to Dr. Evil’s cat, Mr. Bigglesworth, losing his hair. As punishment, Mustafa is dropped into a fire pit and eventually shot. In the sequel The Spy Who Shagged Me, meanwhile, the henchman is a devout three-question form follower before being hit with a dart by Mini-Me (Verne Troyer) and falling off a cliff, breaking his legs. Both scenes were funny, goofy, and proved that even in small doses, Ferrell has a big impact.
Every few years, starting with the Woody Allen film Melinda and Melinda in 2004, Ferrell takes on the role of an everyman in crisis. This is exactly what viewers witness in Everything Must Go, a film loosely based on Raymond Carver’s short story, “Why Don’t You Dance?.” Ferrell plays Nick Halsey, an Arizona salesman who loses his wife, home, and job due to a lapse in his sobriety.
Locked out of his house, Nick creates a makeshift yard sale to sell all of his possessions. While a blatant attempt to give up as he’s hit rock bottom, the sale allows Nick to connect with people in his neighborhood who end up giving him hope and allow him to come to the realization that even though he’s made mistakes, he’s still a good person. With light humor and a star-studded cast (Rebecca Hall, Laura Dern, Stephen Root, Michael Peña), it’s the type of thoughtful role Ferrell plays with sincerity. It’s a terrific performance and as EW’s critic pointed out, “Like Bill Murray and Greg Kinnear before him, this funnyman reveals serious acting chops.”
One of Will Ferrell’s most memorable characters is President George W. Bush, who he first performed the impression of on Saturday Night Live in 2000. It was so popular it eventually led to the one-man Broadway show You’re Welcome America. A Final Night With George W. Bush in 2009 that acted as a swan song for the character. Ferrell clearly has plenty of experience playing a politician, so taking on the role of bumbling four-term congressman Cam Brady, a North Carolina Democrat, fits like a well worn glove.
In The Campaign, Brady’s reelection campaign faces a scandal when it’s revealed he’s had an affair with a supporter. Recognizing they have an opportunity to put in their own representative that they can manipulate, the rich and influential Motch brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd doing their best Koch brothers impression) convince Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis), a small town tour guide, to run as Brady’s Republican opponent. Naive, in over his head, and with the personality of a milquetoast local cable TV children’s series host, Huggins accepts the job to please his father (Brian Cox), a Republican heavyweight.
During his reelection campaign, Brady makes one moronic mistake after another, including punching a baby and a dog on separate occasions. Huggins’ behavior isn’t much better as he succumbs to the underhanded tactics of his ruthless campaign manager Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott). All the antics add up to a crazy, ridiculous, and humorous look at American politics. “It’s every inch a Will Ferrell comedy,” said EW’s critic, “but The Campaign is also comparable, in ambition and perception, to comedies like Wag the Dog, Bulworth, and Idiocracy.”
It’s odd for the follow-up to a comedy to come nine years after the original, particularly one that’s so adored and quoted. However, as EW’s Chris Nashawaty noted, “Ron doesn’t quite share the round-the-clock network’s bold vision of the future, but ‘by the hymen of Olivia Newton-John,’ he’s such a narcissist he needs to be on the air.” And so Will Ferrell and longtime collaborator Adam McKay made it happen… eventually.
Despite the original’s popularity, the sequel to Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy was in a development quagmire from 2008 when writer/director McKay first announced there would be a sequel until 2013 when filming finally began. Paramount, which owned the rights to the franchise, kept waffling on whether or not to bankroll the film before eventually giving the green light.
Although Anchorman wasn’t as critically admired as Ferrell’s other films or a blockbuster hit when it was first released, fans that built a cult following around their favorite fictional TV anchor finally got what they wanted in the sequel: more Ron Burgundy ridiculousness. Reteaming with Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate), Brick Tamland (Steve Carell), Champ Kind (David Koechner), and Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd) proved to be a winner for Ferrell, as Anchorman 2 was significantly more critically and financially successful than its predecessor.
Surfing a tsunami of swagger, figure skater Chazz Michael Michaels (Ferrell in his second Chazz role) makes love to the crowd whenever he’s on the ice. The leather-clad lothario is skating’s bad boy, especially when compared to his cleancut rival Jimmy MacElroy (Jon Heder). While both skaters are at the top of their game, when the two get into a fight after tying for gold at the World Games, they end up banned from the sport they love.
Chazz, the only skater to win four national championships and an adult film award, and MacElroy eventually team up to become the world’s first all-male pairs figure skating team as they make an incredible, and absurd, comeback to skating. In the final act, Ferrell ziplines to the ice using a jock strap and teams up with MacElroy to pull off the death-defying Flying Lotus move, all while skating to Queen.
It’s mind-boggling, but maybe turning the duo into an Olympiad Siegfried and Roy was producer Ben Stiller’s intent. EW’s critic found that the film finds its groove when on the ice, saying, “The movie is funniest when it aims for doofy-surreal balletic farce — when it revels in lyrical slapstick and turns into a comedy of movement, of men gone femme.”
One of the first characters viewers see in the opening credits of Zoolander isn’t blue steely-eyed and dim-witted model Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller), but the film’s villain, Mugatu (Ferrell) nattily dressed according to EW’s critic, “in a triangular wig that’s its own kicky twist on the coif of irony-foreswearing Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter.” In many ways this makes sense as Ferrell almost steals the movie with his over-the-top portrayal of a fashion mogul who brainwashes Derek in an effort to assassinate the Prime Minister of Malaysia.
Ferrell rarely plays a villain, yet he’s a riot when he hams it up in a ridiculous platinum blonde wig. Mugatu throws coffee at one employee, berates several others, and comes up with a clothing line called Derelicte while conditioning Derek to the Frankie Goes to Hollywood song, “Relax.” The brainwashing scenes, with Ferrell dancing and dressed up in one ludicrous outfit after another, are absurd, campy, and fun.
“Yer my boy Blue!” Although initially a mellow family man, once Frank (Ferrell) and his friends Mitch (Luke Wilson) and Beanie (Vince Vaughn) decide to start a fraternity after an enormous housewarming party (with Snoop Dogg as a special guest) in Todd Phillips’ beloved bro comedy Old School, the former party boy reverts to his old habits.
Frank the Tank is one of Ferrell’s most memorable characters, with the actor streaking, defeating James Carville in a debate, and failing to jump through a ring of fire while dressed as a college mascot. As EW’s Lisa Schwarzbaum attested, “Under (executive producer Ivan) Reitman’s deanship, Ferrell lets his freak flag fly.” Frank’s rhythmic gymnastics routine near the end of the film, complete with a ribbon on a stick, is a sight to behold.
While Will Ferrell has done plenty of voiceover work, few of those roles have managed to combine humor, playfulness, and heartstring-pulling as well as his role as Lord Business in The Lego Movie. It’s essentially the film version of the Harry Chapin song, “Cat’s in the Cradle.” Sort of.
At first glance, The Lego Movie seems like just another animated film for kids. As EW’s critic stated in his glowing review, “It may be a helter-skelter kiddie adventure built out of plastic toy components, but it’s fast and original, it’s conceptually audacious, it’s visually astonishing, and it’s 10 times more clever and smart and funny than it needed to be.” Everything IS awesome in The Lego Movie, including Ferrell’s performance.
In the film, Ferrell’s Lord Business is a tyrant in the Lego world. His lone goal is to freeze the world in place using The Kragle, which we later learn is Krazy Glue. Trying to stop him are a construction worker named Emmet (Chris Pratt), a mysterious woman named Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), and blind wizard Virtruvius (Morgan Freeman), all doing their best Lego Matrix impression.
In the human world, we learn that Lord Business (also Ferrell) is really the father of a young son, who just wants to play with his dad’s enormous Lego collection before he glues it all in place. Ferrell is fun as the villainous Lord Business, but shines even brighter as the father who realizes his close-mindedness has made him a bad guy in his son’s eyes. The final moments of the film are touching, sentimental, and will hit any dad right in the feels.
“If you ain’t first, you’re last” is an all or nothing credo to live by but it’s worked out so far for NASCAR superstar Ricky Bobby (Ferrell). He either wins or crashes his car at every race because he’ll only accept a binary result. Unfortunately for Ricky, his life soon comes crashing down, literally. A Frenchman named Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen) becomes the new king of NASCAR and Ricky Bobby quickly loses his wife to his best friend Cal (John C. Reilly), loses his job, and ends up delivering pizzas via public bus. Ricky Bobby’s credo, imprinted on him by his absentee father Reese (Gary Cole), proves to be a house of cards.
Even though the tale of the hero’s fall is a familiar one, Ferrell shines when partnered with Baron Cohen and frequent collaborator Reilly. Jokes at the expense of NASCAR, particularly when aimed at corporate sponsorship, still land almost two decades later. It’s also yet another star vehicle for Ferrell, who’s at the top of his over-the-top game in the film. As EW’s Owen Gleiberman pointed out, “Will Ferrell has a mission, if not an obsession — to celebrate, and satirize, the pumped-up folly of American manhood — and he has found a customized vehicle for it in Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.”
Forget Murtaugh and Riggs, Crockett and Tubbs, and Cagney and Lacey. Those famous cop pairings have nothing on Detectives Allen Gamble (Ferrell) and Terry Hoitz (Mark Wahlberg) — at least when it comes to comedy. Although the pair is continuously overlooked due to the destructive heroics of supercop duo Danson (Dwayne Johnson) and Highsmith (Samuel L. Jackson), they go on to save the NYPD pension fund from being swindled out of billions of dollars.
Wahlberg’s angst-ridden cop, nicknamed the Yankee Clipper because he accidentally shot Derek Jeter in the leg, is perfectly matched with Ferrell’s forensic accountant who’s full of surprises, including his past as a pimp named Gator. Terry’s amazement at his partner’s ability to attract beautiful women, most notably the latter’s wife Sheila (Eva Mendes), is a bit that runs throughout the film and hits the mark every time (along with their captain’s (Michael Keaton) TLC obsession).
The Other Guys is one of Ferrell’s most well-reviewed films, with EW’s critic highlighting the SNL alum’s refined acting chops in his review, saying, “As an actor, he’s closer here to Peter Sellers or the early Woody Allen; he does obsessive riffs on being an insanely cautious man in a culture that prizes control.”
For some, Step Brothers wasn’t a film that resonated right away. As EW’s Darren Franich observed in a story about whether or not the film was the end of a comedy era, “… it was years before I finally watched Step Brothers, and realized that this is a brilliant stupid comedy.” Surprisingly, he’s not alone. As fellow EW critic Chris Nashawaty admitted, “…it took me a few more viewings on HBO6 at 1 a.m. to truly see the light like Saul on the road to Damascus. The best comedies, the ones that really have longevity, seem to work that way.” So true.
Ferrell had the man-child persona nailed well before Step Brothers but teaming up with John C. Reilly turned the gag up to 11 in this movie that, surprisingly, has a positive message. In the film Brennan (Ferrell) and Dale (Reilly) are two 40-year-old men reluctantly forced to live together when their parents (Mary Steenburgen, Richard Jenkins) marry. After initially hating each other, they soon bond over their similarities, like their penchant for breaking boards and kicking holes in pumpkins.
Watching two men act like 10 year olds is ridiculously entertaining, especially when Brennan and Dale finally come together and support each other even after trying to bury one another alive after a fight. The ending of the film, where Ferrell shows off a voice that’s a blend of Fergie and Jesus, is a reminder to never lose your dinosaur. Or simply stated, always be yourself.
Of all of Ferrell’s films, Elf is perhaps his most beloved across generations — although the role was originally intended to be played by Jim Carrey. The story of Buddy the Elf (Ferrell), an orphan who inadvertently crawls into Santa Claus’s Christmas sack and is then raised at the North Pole, has become a holiday classic since it was released.
Played with a sweet innocence and child-like wonder, Ferrell’s character provides a great counterpoint to his frequently frustrated father, Walter Hobbs (James Caan), a gruff man who had no idea Buddy existed until he shows up in New York City. Buddy is a fish out of water and unintentionally ruffles plenty of feathers. However, “It’s Ferrell’s childlike quality that keeps you rooting for him, even as he sends his fists into the face of a mall Santa,” EW’s critic observed when ranking the top holiday movie moments.
Even though the cast is loaded with stars (Ed Asner, Bob Newhart, Mary Steenburgen, Zooey Deschanel) and the film has become a holiday favorite, don’t expect there to ever be an Elf 2. Ferrell has stated several times he’d never play Buddy again and even rejected a sequel that would have reportedly paid him $29 million.
Surprisingly, Anchorman was not a critical darling. It had a 66% critics score on Rotten Tomatoes and as EW’s critic pointed out, “The movie is funny when it’s nasty, as when Ron and Veronica trade insults at the anchor desk. Most of the time, though, it’s not nasty enough.” Audience members disagreed with critics, however, as the film that catapulted Ferrell into superstardom is also likely his most quoteworthy.
“Milk was a bad choice!,” “I’m in a glass case of emotion!,” ”It’s anchorMAN not anchorLADy!,” and “I have many leather bound books that smell of rich mahogany” are just a handful of great one-liners fans of Ron Burgundy have been saying for almost 20 years.
Anchorman was the first film that Ferrell and Adam McKay, a former head writer on Saturday Night Live, collaborated on. However, their long-running partnership hit a speed bump in 2019. They reportedly disbanded their production company Gary Sanchez in part because McKay offered the role of Lakers owner Jerry Buss in the HBO series Winning Time to John C. Reilly instead of Ferrell.
Perhaps a controversial choice, but Stranger Than Fiction is arguably the most complete movie in the Ferrell filmography, blending comedy with romance, science fiction, and touches of drama. The film focuses on the mundane life of Harold Crick, an IRS agent who lives a rigid, by-the-numbers existence. He unexpectedly falls in love with Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a baker being audited after intentionally not paying her taxes. During the audit, Harold starts to hear a woman narrating his life in his head and learns from literature professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman) that he’s a creation of writer Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson), who always kills off her protagonists. As you can see, Stranger Than Fiction has depth.
EW’s critic noted, “The director, Marc Forster (Finding Neverland), shoots Zach Helm’s (Charlie) Kaufman Lite script in candy colors and at vivid angles, and he gets infectious performances out of Maggie Gyllenhaal as the testy-adorable ‘progressive’ bakery owner who lures Harold from his shell; Dustin Hoffman as the jovial academic who helps him crack the mystery of the narrator; and Thompson, who makes the frazzled, chain-smoking author the most passionate presence in the movie.” Supporting characters clearly shine but it’s Ferrell that rightfully earns spotlight in this film.
Initially, Stranger Than Fiction comes across as a typical Will Ferrell comedy. After all, playing nebbish character’s is his speciality. However, Harold Crick is the most layered and complex role of the actor’s career to date. Watching Harold grow from IRS drone to fully-formed human, capable of love and fighting to survive, makes for a film full of love, hope, humor, thoughtfulness, and sincerity.