The new ice-skating comedy Blades of Glory teams up one extremely funny guy with a guy who isn't funny at all. Unsurprisingly, the outcome is a movie that only works about half the time. Too bad they aren't charging half-price, too.
Jon Heder plays Jimmy MacElroy, a figure skating prodigy plucked from an orphanage by a scheming millionaire (William Fichtner) who wants to turn the child into a world champion. The plan succeeds, but Jimmy's sheltered life has turned him into a naive manchild who is ignorant of anything that doesn't glide across the ice. His main rival for the gold is Chazz Michael Michaels. Played by Will Ferrell, Chazz is a bad boy who likes sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll. Where Jimmy is all precision and choreography, Chazz is visceral and improvisational. They hate each other, and their rivalry heats up when they tie for first at a competition in Stockholm. They get into a fistfight on the ice, a mascot is set on fire, and the two are banned from individual ice skating competition forever.
Nearly four years later, Jimmy's stalker (Nick Swardson) informs the object of his obsession of a Skating Federation loophole. Jimmy might be barred from individual skating, but he's free to participate as part of a pair. Cue the high concept that likely got this movie greenlit: Heder and Ferrell can team-up and be the first ever all-male skating duo. Ooooooooh!
I'll spare you the suspense and say right now, it's Jon Heder that just isn't funny. It makes sense he'd play the uptight ninny, because he doesn't have the comedy chops to go broad with his performance. His stiff neck and expressionless face could never pull off the physicality of an animal like Chazz. I'm not sure why people keep casting this guy. It's not like Benchwarmers or School for Scoundrels lit up the box office. Put him back in the Napoleon Dynamite costume and send him off to open a mall somewhere.
As far as the main stars are concerned, all the laughs are Will Ferrell's to grab. Chazz doesn't provide him with anything particularly new to do, but this is the kind of ridiculously self-involved character no one can play nearly as well as he can. The best gags come when Will either takes his shirt off or mangles the English language and tries to diagram how he got his sentence wrong. Heder's reaction shots usually stop the chuckles cold, but if you get in there quick enough, you can still knock out a guffaw.
Smartly, directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck--yes, it took two people to direct this, and five to write it--stack their supporting cast with heavy-hitting talent. Since Chazz and Jimmy are going to neutralize their own rivalry, the bad guys are going to have to come from outside the team. The lead pair in American figure skating is the brother and sister act of Stranz and Fairchild Van Waldenberg. Real-life husband and wife Will Arnett (Arrested Development) and Amy Poehler (SNL) were brought in to bring this pair of villains to life, and they end up being the best part of the movie. As any ice-skating coach will tell you, the key to comedy is to commit, and Arnett and Poehler definitely do. Their skating routines are far funnier than the ones the guys perform. In one competition they put on hip hop gear and dance to Marky Mark & the Funky Bunch, and in another, they play JFK and Marilyn Monroe. These are wonderfully absurd concepts. Weirdly, Gordon and Speck decide not to show these performances in full, giving us just a snippet of the former and a short montage of the latter.
In fact, for a sports-based comedy, Blades of Glory nearly skips the ice skating altogether. The directors keep this part of the movie lopsided in favor of Heder and Ferrell, not creating any sense of tension or giving us an exciting underdog victory. It's like watching Dodgeball without anybody getting hit by the balls. The problem is, the ice skating routines for Chazz and Jimmy aren't very funny. They rely mainly on the hope that we'll all see two men skating together and think it's icky enough to make us laugh because of the nervous tension. There are several vaguely homophobic moments, and I think there is cause to wonder if somewhere in the editing process there was a call to straighten up Blades. Look at the decor in the kitchen scene with Chazz and Jimmy. You'll note from some of the decorations that it's the house of their coach (Craig T. Nelson), but some of the other stuff around might surprise you. Is that a picture of Matt Damon on the refrigerator? And is the stained-glass over the sink an image of a white man and a black man surrounded by hearts? Were the coach and the choreographer (the underused Romany Malco) intended to be lovers but all their scenes got cut?
This review is coming off a little harsher than I intended. Like I said, if I had to put a figure on it, about 50% of the jokes hit the mark. There are some genuinely funny moments, and the film had more potential than it let on. Poor Jenna Fischer is wasted, getting to do less in a 90-minute movie where she's the lead romantic interest than she does in 30-minutes as part of the ensemble cast of The Office. Likewise, there are flashes of a sick left-field humor that doesn't get put to use enough. The two gags I remember best involve two hot dogs and a severed head. Chances are, if you've seen the movie, you remember them, too. They are so surprising and so funny, you have to wonder why more of this movie isn't like that.
Instead, the other half of Blades of Glory is predictable and flat. The good jokes also arrive all bunched up, leaving long pauses where no laughs come at all. Somewhere along the way, those five writers needed to stop noodling with the concept and actually sit down and write a decent script. Then Blades of Glory might have earned a gold, or at the very least, a silver medal. Instead, it's a barely passable bronze.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the superhero series It Girl and the Atomics and the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.