Playing George W. Bush helped earn Will Ferrell a starmaking level of exposure on “Saturday Night Live,” so it was appropriate that he help send the unpopular 43rd president packing with a sardonic tribute. Yet HBO’s live telecast of Ferrell’s one-man (and friends) show was, for the most part, a front-row seat for a pretty slim bit of entertainment — one that relies more on a kind of gleeful immaturity than genuine satire. Ferrell is talented enough to produce several amusing moments, but lacking a communal audience environment, it was only a so-so TV experience.
Producer-director Marty Callner succeeded in providing the couchbound HBO audience with a closeup view of writer-star-producer Ferrell and producer-stage director Adam McKay’s farewell to George W. Bush — including a bigger-than-life glimpse of the oversized penis that flashes on the video screen behind him. “That’s my stimulus package!” he crows.
Still, Ferrell the performer is mostly let down by Ferrell the writer, whose take on Bush — mangling words such as “Niger,” blurting out obscenities, indulging in a lustful pas de deux with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (Pia Glenn) — seldom rises above the level of an “SNL” spoof in its skewering of W.’s well-documented shortcomings, albeit with a liberating “R” rating.
Only occasionally does Ferrell zero in on the underlying reasons why New York theatergoers are so eager to laugh and clap along at the expense of the last commander-in-chief, as he describes the Geneva Conventions (“the laws that will govern the moon once it’s colonized”) or stumbles through a phone call about the response to Hurricane Katrina.
Near the end, the camera zoomed in as Bush reflected on his presidency in a more somber vein, including lives lost in Iraq and the children that will grow up without parents. Even though the show is principally a broad comedy, it was the one sequence that really popped on TV, providing a sobering reminder why the theater would erupt when Ferrell as Bush asks, “Am I the worst president of all time?”
Other than that, “You’re Welcome America” proved a fairly pedestrian 90-some-odd minutes. Moreover, what Variety theater critic David Rooney called its “punchy interactive dynamic” — with Bush assigning bizarre nicknames to audience members — produced understandable guffaws in the house but mere smiles at home. (As a footnote, CBS News’ Rick Kaplan — who identified himself as a journalist — was simply tagged “Liar.”)
In the otherwise-forgettable movie “W.,” Josh Brolin managed to transform Bush into a semi-poignant figure — a fun-loving guy who went into the family business, only to discover he lacked the acumen for the job upon reaching the top. Ferrell’s rendering, by contrast, goes no deeper than Bush the buffoon.
For five to 10 minutes, that’s good fun. After a while, though, it was hard not to hope that somebody would yell “Live, From New York…” and put this prolonged sketch to bed.