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Will Ferrell: You're Welcome, America. A Final Night with George W. Bush
The most enjoyable aspect of Will Ferrell's impersonation of George W. Bush is the way he embodies a somewhat abstracted "version" of the former President, rather than simply mimicking his voice or body language. On Saturday Night Live, Ferrell's Bush was infantile, impulsive, easily distracted - like a very small child or a puppy. One sketch placed Ferrell's Bush with Dana Carvey as Bush, Sr., on a hunting trip; Ferrell kept picking up a pair of loose antlers and banging them together awkwardly like a two-year-old. Another well-known bit had Bush in the Oval Office, batting around objects on his desk like a kitten with a ball of yarn. This interpretation of Bush was far more effective - and funnier - than a bumbling Bush who made an exaggerated buffoon out of himself. Since Bush did that well enough on his own, a smart comedian like Ferrell was encouraged to take things in a different direction.
Aired live on HBO in March of this year, You're Welcome, America: A Final Night with George W. Bush, is Will Ferrell's Broadway stage show, which ran at the Cort Theater in New York City last winter. The show saw Ferrell taking his Bush out of mothballs - Ferrell had left SNL in 2002 - and somewhat reshaping him. For the purpose of this 90-minute one-man show, Ferrell has taken on much more of Bush's body language. Since Ferrell is standing throughout the show in full view of the audience (and not seated behind a desk or shot from the waist up, as he usually was on SNL), he has adopted Bush's bent-kneed stance and partially-outstretched arms. (I always thought Bush was trying to appear bow-legged, as if he'd spent his youth on horseback, ropin' dogies.) In any case, the physical aspect of Ferrell's Bush has become more accurate - it occurred to me that although Josh Brolin's performance was very good, Ferrell could have easily played Bush in Oliver Stone's W. It's that refined.
The show is an auto-retrospective, with Bush reflecting on his life and career. Ferrell wrote the piece, and some bits shine more than others. The first fifteen to twenty minutes drag, and are not funny. Ferrell seems more concerned with the technical aspects of his performance - looking and sounding like Bush - than in effectively delivering jokes. But things pick up as the show begins to take liberties with Bush's biography, digressing into fantasias upon a theme in sequences where Bush muses about his life in the woods (during his "lost years" of the early '70s) with someone named Dave Rothschild, or during a dream-like dance duet with Condoleezza Rice. There are several such sequences - rather than being bitingly satirical (which the show is, at times), Ferrell prefers to take the Bush story in unexpected, abstracted directions, reinforcing the absurd, cartoon-like qualities of Bush's actual biography. Bush is not just being mocked here; he is being ridiculed at a fundamental non-political level. The moments in which Bush is directly "made fun of" are less effective than these odd flights of fancy, wherein exaggerations are piled one on top of another. Although I happen to believe that Bush is beneath ridicule - and that "Bush jokes" are beyond tired - Ferrell, at moments, gets at something strange beneath the surface of his character that is connected to the same innocent idiocy that he touched upon in his SNL sketches.
You're Welcome, America isn't quite a one-man show. Ferrell's brother Patrick, plays the Secret Service agent stationed on the stage's apron for Bush's protection. During scene changes, the agent moves to center stage, scanning the audience, and as the interstitial music picks up, he gradually gives in to the temptation to dance. These numbers become increasingly involved - and impressive - with each successive scene change. There is also the brief but effective appearance by Pia Glenn as Condoleezza Rice during the aforementioned dance sequence. Half pas de deux and half lapdance, Glenn's sultry sashaying personifies the notion that Rice is actually a wildwoman trapped beneath a Stanford-polished veneer.
Although likely not as long-lasting a work as it could have been, You're Welcome, America is hilarious at times - the sequence in which he assigns nicknames to members of the audience, for example - but not entirely fulfilling. It's entertaining, but not fortifying, and smart, even though the script needed a more work. It's nice to see Will Ferrell, who is in danger of doing too many underweight big-budget features, work out his comedy chops in a new setting with a novel concept.
The enhanced 1.78:1 transfer is fine. The source material dates from earlier this year, so the colors are deep, with the expected degree of sharpness. The special was shown live on HBO, and there are a few odd edits and zooms, as if cameras were not quite on their cues. These little hiccups could have been fixed with a minor amount of post-production to smooth out the visual presentation, but were left intact.
The surround track is very good, although not spectacular. A dialogue-driven live show barely even merits a surround track to begin with. Nonetheless, HBO has taken the extra step and what we have here is fairly immersive, recreating the ambience of the live audience. Music is strong here, too, when it's used.
First is a short behind-the-scenes featurette called The Road to Broadway that details how the show came to be. A second, funnier piece is Bush on Bush, a split-screen "self-interview" with Ferrell as Bush, times two. The exchange on good woods versus bad woods is hilarious. Also included here is an unmemorable true-or-false Bush-related trivia game titled It's Time Has Come of Being a Decider, America.
There is very funny material in You're Welcome, America, and although the program takes a while to get going, Will Ferrell hits some high points in this 90-minute live performance. Although Bush-related comedy would seem to be a thing of the past, Ferrell's wide-ranging, inventive rendition of the former president is worth a look. Recommended.