Can Will Farrell be stopped? -- How the ''Blades of Glory'' star always ices the box office

By Joshua Rich
Updated April 06, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT

Forget those Olympic judges. When it comes to fickle crowds, nobody’s tougher than the moviegoing public. Just ask Will Ferrell. Little more than a year ago, the actor appeared to be skating on thin ice following a string of flops: 2005’s Melinda and Melinda, Kicking and Screaming, Bewitched”], and The Producers. But Talladega Nights‘ $148.2 million ride last summer put him back in the winner’s circle — and now Blades of Glory‘s gold-medal performance has melted away any lingering concerns about the health of his career.

Granted, the figure-skating farce’s $33 million opening wasn’t as impressive as, say, a triple-lutz/triple-Salchow combination: Some pundits predicted a higher take given Talladega‘s success and the fact that the similarly broad comedy Wild Hogs bowed to $39.7 million in March. But Blades did give Ferrell his second-best debut ever as a lead actor (trailing Talladega‘s $47 million), and it all but solidifies his place alongside Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, and the rest of Hollywood’s bankable comedy elite.

”He’s confident in what he thinks is funny,” says Stiller, a Blades producer. ”It’s like Bill Murray or Steve Martin — he’s able to play ridiculous characters with such bravado, but I think people sense he’s in on the joke.” And audiences love him for it. Like Talladega (and Anchorman and Elf and Old School), Blades centers on a cuddly buffoon who’s almost certain to wind up with his shirt off. ”He’s a regular guy,” says Van Toffler, president of MTV Films, which co-produced Blades with Dream-Works. ”You can tell from his physique. It’s not like he’s stuck in the gym with trainers all day!”

We may never catch Ferrell pumping iron, but he definitely has the stamina to keep playing some form of the boobish man-child he’s been perfecting since his days on SNL. He’s currently filming another sports comedy, Semi-Pro, in which he plays a 1970s basketball player/coach/owner/washed-up one-hit-wonder rock star whose antics include warbling a power anthem called ”Love Me Sexy” and wrestling a bear. And in September, he’ll start production with longtime filmmaking partner Adam McKay and John C. Reilly on Step Brothers, about a scorching sibling rivalry between two 40-year-olds. ”I don’t think he thinks in terms of formulas,” says Semi-Pro director Kent Alterman. ”He just tries to respond to material and characters that are creatively rewarding.”

Fair enough, but how will Ferrell, who turns 40 in July, stay fresh at the box office? After all, there’s an eventual limit to the number of laughs a man can get by exposing his flabby belly. (Even the star, who declined to comment for this story, recently acknowledged the inevitable flight of fame, telling the Associated Press, ”It feels like you do, for better or worse, have a shelf life.”) The solution, says Toffler: ”He needs to diversify.” Hey, it worked for funny fellows like Robin Williams, Tom Hanks, and Eddie Murphy, who, after years of earning goodwill from audiences and critics, eventually won Oscars (or, in Murphy’s case, an Oscar nomination) for more serious turns.

Ferrell made his first big step toward diversification last fall with Stranger Than Fiction, a dramedy that was praised by critics, grossed $40.4 million, and netted him a best-actor Golden Globe nod. If he continues to pick small roles that intrigue him — and still appears in one or two mainstream comedies a year — he’ll be able to avoid the overexposure that turned off audiences in 2005. Says Blades codirector Will Speck, ”The time for him to stop [doing broad comedies] is when he can’t bring nuance and sophistication to the interpretations of these characters. And I don’t think that’s ever going to happen.” Because nobody brings nuance and sophistication to wrestling a bear quite like Will Ferrell.