Last March, Will Ferrell created a charity event to raise 1 million dollars for “Cancer for College,” in which he would play 10 positions (including a third base coach) for 10 teams in 1 day of Major League Baseball spring training in Arizona. It was an homage to Bert Campaneris, who completed the same feat 5 decades ago, but Ferrell was also — in his own words — “about to break a 59-year-old marketing record that’s already been broken by 3 other people.” HBO collaborated with Ferrell’s Funny or Die banner, filmed it, and now we have the one-hour special Ferrell Takes the Field.
Ferrell has been involved in what seem to be increasingly meta projects, from the incredibly niche IFC miniseries The Spoils of Babylon and The Spoils Before Dying to his completely played-straight Lifetime movie A Deadly Adoption; and in that vein, Ferrell Takes the Field feels like a natural next step. For most of the special, Ferrell plays a caricature of himself, pretending to be truly invested in his teams, and suitably devastated when he’s “traded,” giving exit interviews and more to that effect. Yet oddly, if there was a time for him to play things straight (and really give a perspective on being an outsider in such a unique situation), it would be here. Instead, his choice to spend the day as a character instead of himself (especially given his personal connection to the charity) leads to a tonal mismatch.
Ferrell is still of course very funny. But the short, whirlwind special seems to have left so much on the cutting room floor, only getting to tease small moments as its star fields his 10 positions, razzes the team and managers, and tosses out soundbites in his one-on-one interviews about how “the passive bunt is the symbol of America’s greatness” and how his day is all “intensity, honor, and crushing ass.” His actually playing has sincere though mixed results, and fans seem to largely be delighted by his presence (the players, some of whom are vying for actual contracts, slightly less so). But it also seems like the kind of event that would be incredibly fun … if you were there.
In many ways the special is a performance piece, and for fans of the 10 AL and NL West teams Ferrell briefly joins, it’s also a chance to get some of the in-jokes about the specific personnel who are featured. (Ferrell has a particularly funny riff on him “hating” Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane, for example). And while ultimately it’s clear that Ferrell had fun, the fans seemed to enjoy it, and a lot of money for charity was raised, the special’s viability (or longevity) as an HBO documentary is less certain. Despite Ferrell’s passionate declaration that he had his “cap on backwards, cock and balls flying,” the 47-year-old also acknowledged, “I’m too old for this shit.”
Rating: ★★★ Good, but could have been better
Ferrell Takes the Field premieres Saturday, September 12th at 10 p.m. on HBO.