When Adam McKay hoisted his adapted screenplay Oscar back in February for “The Big Short,” his excoriating dissection of Wall Street’s deft and destructive thuggery, that sound you heard was the collective “WTF” of dozens of top film critics and pundits who’d spent the entire awards season writing a variation of the “I never saw this coming” mea culpa/apologia.
To justify their myopia, the press generally cited “Step Brothers” (2008) as the ultimate Other Side of Paradise credit on McKay’s resume, neatly evading their own misreadings of McKay’s — and his co-conspirator in Gary Sanchez Prods., Will Ferrell’s — many other overtly and hilariously political ruminations on America’s cultural fissures, fixations and florid foibles.
They should be red-faced, especially since no less an authority than America’s preeminent docu-politico Michael Moore knew what they were up to a decade ago. “The day after ‘Talladega Nights’ opened,” recalls McKay of his and Ferrell’s 2006 comedy, “Moore called me and said, ‘You son of a bitch, you just made the most subversive movie in the country, and no one knows it.’”
Perhaps it’s because Ferrell and McKay have been so good at their primary gig — getting laughs and entertaining — that the chuckles have consistently upstaged the tough insights.
But now the gato is out of the bag and Gary Sanchez Prods. has won a fresh appreciation for its often corrosive satiric explorations of America, its families, its heroes and its sometimes destructive values and myths.
“If you’re not first, you’re last,” said Reese Bobby (Gary Cole) in “Talladega,” and for those paying attention, America’s win-at-all-costs ethos had found its perfect and perfectly absurd mantra.
And for everyone else? “The fact that that line gets quoted sincerely all the time is really horrifying,” says McKay, allowing himself a laugh at the preposterousness of the misguided appropriation.
But “Talladega” was no one-off, having been preceded by “Anchorman” (2004), which gently spoofed the localized and lobotomized spoonfeeding of hard news into soft, televisable bits, while “Anchorman 2” (2013) upped the ante, helpfully explaining how Fox News’ brand of flag-waving, scapegoating, patriotic puppy-hugging and right-winging was invented in 1979 by a pompous polyester tube boob named Ron Burgundy.
Lest anyone imagine that the subtext is in the eye of the beholder, as opposed to the creators, McKay recalls, “That was the central idea behind it and it was the reason we did the sequel.” Ferrell concurs, explaining, “Adam really kept saying, ‘They’re there for the invention of cable news.’”
And lest you wonder where McKay’s head was at on that particular development in our history, he ruefully notes, “ I love that they’re the ones who destroyed America.”
“The Campaign” (2012) portrayed American politics as commedia dell’arte and kept our attention focused on the empty buffoons hogging the center stage, while the real business of running America was handled by the Koch brothers-like boys in the backroom.
The Tony-nommed Broadway show “You’re Welcome America — A Final Night With George W. Bush” (2009) grappled with a real-life political enigma who seemed, by the time Ferrell was done with him, to be as perfectly constructed an unholy fool as a character from a Jerzy Kosinski novel.
Having politicized the big screen and the stage, it’s no surprise that the Sanchez shingle’s groundbreaking online comedy site, “Funny or Die,” is political as hell. It’s currently helping a beTrumped and bewildered nation grapple with that stranger than fiction phenomenon.
Normally, anyone spending as much time stirring up the populace and lampooning our national mores as the Gary Sanchez duo do, would be better known for their barbed analyses, but their films do tend to blend scathing portraits of delusional overachievers with gleefully slapstick humor.
“Talladega” whipsaws between big laughs from inherently daft and thoroughly unselfconscious Middle America religious rituals to Ricky Bobby’s panic attacks sans pants.
Which brings us back to “Step Brothers.”
If you look closely, you can find the direct line from the titular characters, who are essentially infantilized narcissists, to the “Big Short” sharpies and co-conspirators who drove the global economy off a cliff. After decades of reality TV expounding the virtues of quick easy fame and instant wealth, the “Step Brothers” are America’s children and “Big Short’s” Wall Street is the ultimate game show.
Perhaps the secret of the success of the Sanchez canon is their sincere belief in core values that consumerism can’t replace. Lucy Bobby (Jane Lynch) is outraged by the callous stupidity of her grandkids until she can stand it no more and “Granny Love” comes down like the wrath of God.
Ricky Bobby must literally pass through the flames before he hits the other side of his demented quest for empty trophies garnered from driving faster than the next guy.
But the audience never stops loving Ricky, because they never stop relating to him. Driving fast feels good and winning beats losing. His innocent journey through American excess is a now universal fantasy and it makes audiences feel good to know that the Winner’s Circle is no fun without a few things money can’t buy: true friends, family, integrity.
Now we’ve revealed their political chicanery, it should be OK to reveal that beneath the “subversion” that fills Moore with glee, there’s a foundation of empathy for everyone out there trying to make sense of an increasingly absurd world that seems to have an endless supply of ways to break our spirits.
So here’s a big “gracias” to the boys from Sanchez for relieving the pain and tickling the funny bones, while also honoring our intelligence by acknowledging, yes, we are all getting screwed and only one percent of us are well-paid for the experience.