Will Ferrell seems mired in a bit of a rut, with a career that of late has been more performance art than anything else, from the deadly earnest Lifetime movie “A Deadly Adoption” to his wraparounds for IFC’s two satirical “The Spoils … ” miniseries to this latest HBO special, “Ferrell Takes the Field.” While this latest is, at least, for a good cause, it’s an awfully thin construct, one that was probably a lot more fun if you happened to attend one of the five spring training games in which the comic competed, all to raise money for charity.
The backstory, frankly, is much better than the special, and one wishes more of it had found a way into this 49-minute project: Craig Pollard, a USC fraternity brother of Ferrell’s, had his baseball career cut short by cancer. As a result, Pollard founded Cancer for College, to help support cancer survivors by bestowing scholarships.
The conceit for “Ferrell Takes the Field” was for the comic to participate in five games with 10 different teams, playing different positions in each one (including, just to round things out, third-base coach). In so doing, he’s replicating a feat by shortstop Bert “Campy” Campaneris, who was 23 when he played all nine positions in a 1965 game for the Kansas City Athletics, and also makes an appearance in the special.
As a consequence, there’s a sort-of “Paper Lion”-like quality to Ferrell’s gambit as a 47-year-old guy, although unlike participatory journalist George Plimpton, he goes through the whole exercise playing a character, as if he’s a journeyman ballplayer with the misfortune of being traded all the time.
Ferrell does deliver some dryly funny moments, either interacting with the players (who engage in some performing of their own regarding how seriously they take the stunt) or in his direct-to-camera interviews. In the latter, he trashes general manager Billy Beane — the guy Brad Pitt played in “Moneyball” — insisting he’s a jerk who just sits in his office, watching the movie on a continuous loop.
Produced in conjunction with Major League Baseball, “Ferrell Takes the Field” is in some respects an ode to the game, which could use a little of the NBA’s hipness to rub off on it. Yet what the project cries out for, and actually gets only very sparingly at the very end — via a clip of Ferrell as a guest on “Late Show With David Letterman” — is some sense of his appreciation for what it’s like to actually see a major-league-level fastball or line drive zooming at or past you. Instead, Ferrell mostly plays the clown, discussing his likely induction into the Hall of Fame.
Given the charitable underpinnings, and Ferrell’s past association with HBO on “Eastbound & Down” and the 2009 comedy special “Will Ferrell: You’re Welcome America. A Final Night With George W. Bush,” it’s not surprising the network would happily underwrite his latest effort.
Still, however lucrative his association with the Funny or Die banner might be as a producer, Ferrell looks a bit stale right now as a performer. And while it’s better, perhaps, to keep heading to the mound as opposed to just hanging out in the bullpen, “Ferrell Takes the Field” is just another in a series of minor-league endeavors, one that’s nowhere near his best stuff.