Of the nearly 150 actors who graduated from Saturday Night Live, none have won an Oscar. Cue the Debbie Downer music.
I’m not saying the Academy screwed it up by failing to recognize the large-screen version of It’s Pat. But Hollywood has largely ignored the fact that many former “SNL” actors – Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy, Joan Cusack, Adam Sandler – did some impressive dramatic work.
Add Will Ferrell to that list. His latest “The Shrink Next Door” is a limited series on Apple TV + so it is out of the question for Oscar viewing. But that doesn’t make his star’s performance any less impressive.
Ferrell plays Marty, who owns a New York fabric company and a summer home in the Hamptons, both of which his father inherited. What he did not inherit was his father’s backbone.
When a customer makes ridiculous demands, Marty crouches in a back room to have a quiet panic attack. He needs his gum-chewing sister Phyllis (a great Kathryn Hahn) to tell his ex-girlfriend to get lost. He’s too much of a good guy.
Dr. Enter Ike (Paul Rudd), a clever psychiatrist who teaches his patients to toughen up. He’s exactly what Marty needs – until he’s not.
Over the course of 10 episodes (the first three premieres on Friday) we see Dr. Ike slowly takes over the life of his client, lets himself be hired as a “special consultant” at the fabric company and convinces Marty to cut off the connection with his sister. To persuade him to throw lavish parties to raise his profile and to confiscate this summer house. Towards the end of their 30-year relationship, he dictated his non-printable novel “Some Like It Tropical” to Marty while he was setting golf balls.
Rudd is great, so charming that you have to wait until the last moment to hiss.
But that’s Ferrell’s moment. The actor has built a career as a blowhard and buffoon, but has occasionally shown the ability to play sensitive lost souls in underrated films such as “Stranger Than Fiction” and “Everything Must Go”. It is this gift that shines here.
When he is overwhelmed, he bends over his koi pond and coo to his fish as if they were his children. After shedding his shyness about flirting with a shop clerk, he sprints down the street with the excitement of Rocky Balboa climbing the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
There may not be a better school for learning how to deal with a variety of emotions than “SNL”. The performers often take on four or five very different characters every week, all in front of a live audience. In Ferrell’s case, that meant playing George W. Bush and then channeling a male-child cheerleader 10 minutes later. It could be argued that the series is better training for a rich, diverse career than a few seasons with the Royal Shakespeare Company.
But how often will Ferrell stretch? Will he go down the path of Sandler, who continues to do 10 “Grown Ups” for every “Uncut Gems”? Or will he follow in the footsteps of Murray, who pretty much stopped making surefire comedies to pledge allegiance to independent-minded directors like Wes Anderson?
“SNL” prepares brilliant talent for bigger, better things. It is up to the graduates to benefit from it.
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