I've seen him on SNL, and generally found his performances there to be disappointing. Or, perhaps, his performances there set my expectations for him awfully low, which means he left no room to disappoint me any more. And then he went on to a number of movies, each of which I found myself sneaking into, for at best I was hoping to enjoy them in spite of Will Farrell.
Almost without fail, once I actually get past my expectation of what a Will Farrell movie is and actually see the show, I am entertained and satisfied. They're typically charming and funny, heartwarming if sometimes heartbreaking. And, as a rule, I tell myself that this one is the exception. "Gee, that Will Farrell - this time he made a good movie." And all the glowing praise that I hear about him from his coworkers about how gentle and generous an actor he is registers in some part of my brain disconnected from my expectations about his next movie.
See, that doesn't sound like intelligence, that sounds like brain damage.
So, you can understand that I was more interested in seeing Emma Thompson and Maggie Gyllenhaal in the movie, and I considered Will Ferrell's role in the movie to be a necessary filler to give the good actors an opportunity to get their jobs done.
Just like the other movies.
Will Ferrell's performance was spot-on. The movie was laugh-out-loud funny and tear-jerking heartbreaking, and it takes an unusual actor to be the sympathetic straight man to evoke those reactions so skillfully.
For those of you that haven't seen the trailer for this movie, the premise is that Farrell's character suddenly begins hearing a narrator's (Thompson's) voice, and determines she's narrating a story in which he is but a character. He is troubled by the sound of voices ("she's describing my life, but with a better vocabulary!"). Early on in the movie, the narrator foreshadows (well, telegraphs, through the use of the "third person omniscient") Farrell's death. And the trajectory of the movie is set.
The absurd nature of the film reminds me a bit of "I [heart] Huckabees"; I'd have been interested to attend the first few readings of the script, where the actors are finding their way into their characters as illuminated by some fairly inane exchanges on the page. By the time the actors inhabited their roles, these lines were rich with meaning that the words alone didn't carry.
Recommendation: See the film, take a date if you have one. Take me if you don't, I'll watch it again.