Adam McKay was, for many a year, something of a forgotten man in Hollywood. His mid-budget feature-length comedy outings were always successful at the box office but the press surrounding them was often directed towards stars like Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly, a couple of actors McKay brought together on multiple occasions with hilarious effect. He was barely mentioned in promotional material or reviews and thus rarely appreciated for his sizeable efforts; the probable cause being the stigma comedy movies still have with critics. In 2015 however, McKay well and truly jumped out of the shadows and onto the world stage as The Big Short earned him an Oscar win for Adapted Screenplay as well as a nomination for Achievement in Directing. McKay’s bold step from the realm of out-and-out comedy into political satire turned drama pushed his directorial career into an entirely new and altogether more politically charged direction. With a hotly anticipated Dick Cheney centred movie on the way – Backseat (released Dec 2018 and starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Steve Carell) – it seemed like now was the perfect time to take a deeper look at this underappreciated craftsman’s career behind the lens.
Here are Adam McKay’s 6 directed feature-length movies, Ranked…
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6. Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013)
When a sequel takes nearly 10 years to get made, you know it’s probably not going to hit the heights of the original, and that was never more true than with Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues.
In 2004 when the original Anchorman was released, the style of comedy and effervescent performances of lead stars like Steve Carell and central protagonist Will Ferrell were hot new things on the market; their off-the-cuff jokes and moments of physical humour compressed into a tight comedy that seemed a laugh a minute. In the sequel, things were much more loose. No longer was the through-line of the plot so clear, nor the jokes so quick. Anchorman 2 was seemingly misguided as the stars were offered way too much time to improvise to their own characters’ needs with the narrative seemingly thrown to one side on multiple occasions, the authority of the director seemingly less prevalent than ever before. Ferrell was off the mark, with this movie acting almost as if a greatest hits of jokes he had hit in countless comedies through the years (including other Adam McKay films), and the much increased star power of Steve Carell and Paul Rudd made it impossible to fit either actor into the movie without their own share of the bloated screen time, thus slowing the movie down to fit their needs and seemingly ruining any momentum that it may have had.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom however, as the news anchor showdown McKay put together is one of the most shocking and utterly hilarious battles in all of film; a true classic in its own right.
Still, not enough to take this film anywhere above last place in this list.
5. The Other Guys (2010)
It’s not that The Other Guys wasn’t funny, nor is it that this film didn’t have its moments of clever artistry, because quite honestly it had more than enough of both for a comedy of its type. But, when your filmography is as strong as Adam McKay’s, then there’s always got to be one film that seems to be ranked unfairly low, and in the case of this list, it’s The Other Guys.
The Other Guys wasn’t earth shattering nor that well critically received in comparison to other McKay releases, but it more than did its job of earning laughs and presenting absurdist comedy through an almost true-to-life lens in that off-centre way that McKay excelled in throughout the 2000s. Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg were this time the focus of the filmmaker’s attention, with their buddy cop friendship being played so over the top that the parody of the buddy cop genre they ended up making was about as good of a mainstream buddy cop movie as we’ve seen for years.
The standout moment in this one is undoubtedly the small but hilarious and utterly satisfying arc for Dwayne Johnson and Samuel L. Jackson, but some of the jokes popularised in this film remain in the public conscience to this day, with comedies as beloved as 21 Jump Street even taking pointers from the work done on this film.
4. Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006)
Perhaps the least well known of McKay’s directorial filmography, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby was actually the first time McKay worked with the partnership of Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly that would come to star so vibrantly in Step Brothers two years later.
Telling the tale of a NASCAR driver (Ferrell) and his childhood friend turned partner (Reilly), Talladega Nights was an almost pitch perfect rift on sports movies that featured some of the most hilarious one-liners and creative comedy set pieces you’ll see in any McKay movie to date.
Taking lessons from his time at the helm of Anchorman two years prior, McKay put together a cast of extraordinary actors in supporting roles, each of whom helped to elevate down-time from the movie’s central plot or even assist in the enjoyment created in the movie’s most pivotal scenes. Amy Adams, Gary Cole, Leslie Bibb, Jane Lynch, Michael Clarke Duncan, Andy Richter, Molly Shannon, David Koechner, Greg Germann and Jack McBrayer all brought their own facets of entertainment to McKay’s film, but it was Sacha Baron Cohen who stood out from the rest as Formula 1 driver antagonist Jean Girard, the most French Frenchman you could ever hope to meet.
Seeing Sacha Baron Cohen, Ferrell and Reilly trade jibes is something for any fan of this era’s comedy to see, and McKay’s management of these sizeable egos and considerable talents is something to admire.
3. Step Brothers (2008)
2008 comedy hit Step Brothers is one of the most quotable comedies of the century so far and certainly in the top 5 for most quoted comedies from the 2000s.
This Adam McKay collaboration with the team of Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly was more tightly knit than his work on Talladega Nights, with secondary characters only entering the fray when the screenplay apparently demanded it. As such, every character felt like part of the movie, each having their own place in the developing relationship of the two fourty-something teenagers; their actions coming to shape the coming of age of Ferrell and Reilly – a concept so absurd in itself given their age that it was to be laughed at even ahead of time.
When people think back to comedy in the 2000s, they’ll think of the Seth Rogen/Judd Apatow empire and the McKay/Ferrell movies, the latter of which will feature most prominently Step Brothers and what’s coming next…
2. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)
Is there a greater Will Ferrell film? Probably not.
The work Adam McKay and team did on delivering Anchorman was something close to miraculous. For a comedy so ridiculous in its premise and bonkers in its delivery to have such a mass appeal and cultural impact is simply a phenomenal achievement by all involved. Could anyone have imagined the countless quotes, memes and references that would come from this one movie?
Anchorman has reached a point as a comedy whereby other comedies are now openly referencing it. If that’s not a sign of legendary status then I don’t know what is.
The point here is that everything Anchorman set up and delivered in 2004 was funny to the point of being game changing. There was a time in comedy before Anchorman and after Anchorman, and while the debate will rage on about whether this film changed the industry for better or worse, the fact remains that it did indeed change the industry; a feat not many comedies or comedy filmmakers can boast.
1. The Big Short (2015)
5 Oscar nominations including 1 win. Could anyone have seen this coming from a director so intimately linked to off-kilter comedy throughout the rest of his established career?
The Big Short was a game changer for Adam McKay but also an incredibly important moment in mainstream American cinema in how it brought the politics of the financial crash and worldwide recession into view, critiqued it and delivered a damming statement on how the aftermath was dealt with, all the while remaining vastly entertaining, incredibly creative and at times downright moving.
McKay and company took an incredibly modern approach in telling this serious and potentially insensitive story through a pseudo-documentary style in which particular characters would address the viewer directly with brief intervals of Margot Robbie in a bath explaining the ins and outs of information that was deemed too difficult to understand. This unusual means of presentation truly made the film stand out in a pack of high-end Oscar nominees in 2016 (including Spotlight, The Revenant and The Danish Girl); a point proven by its Adapted Screenplay Oscar win and 8 total nominations across the BAFTAs and Golden Globes.
If there was to be a film that most clearly summarised McKay’s comic sensibilities and talents as a critical artist, it would be The Big Short, truly the greatest film of Adam McKay’s hugely impactful career to date.
But what do you think? Do you think we were maybe unfair to push the likes of Anchorman and Step Brothers down the list in favour of The Big Sick? What would your order be? Let us know in the comments!