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Ranking the Films of Adam McKay

April 17, 2024
Tyler Banark
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Adam McKay has had quite the rollercoaster of a career as a writer, producer, and director. He started as a writer for Saturday Night Live, where, after one year, he became the head writer from 1996 to 2001. Following his time on the variety series, he teamed up with Will Ferrell to create the production company Gary Sanchez Productions, spearheading several signature comedies. However, McKay took a heel turn in his career in 2015 when he made the acclaimed dramedy The Big Short, which marked his ascension as the face of satirical comedy, utilizing his sense of humor to convey messages that resonate in our society. In honor of his 56th birthday, here’s a look back at the filmmaker’s work and how his evolution has made an impression on Hollywood.

8. Vice (2018)

A biopic following one of the most powerful vice presidents in American history, Vice sees McKay continuing down the path of dark satire he established with his predecessor, The Big Short. Christian Bale provides an enigmatic performance as Dick Cheney and continues to prove his chameleonic acting chops. The monologue he gives at the end is electrifying, forcing viewers to question his true intentions for the sake of ambiguity in the story. Amy Adams and Sam Rockwell also give standout performances as Lynn Cheney and President George W. Bush, respectively. 

However, Vice does falter in that the plot’s execution is a bit overly flashy. The movie pulled an unnecessary fake out ending only 48 minutes in. It also looks to focus on a lot of different characters that come and go in Cheney’s life, but it’s not done easily. The movie glosses over key events in Cheney’s life, such as his 2006 hunting incident and the use of waterboarding in Guantanamo Bay.

7. Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2017)

The sequel to McKay and Ferrell’s 2003 hit comedy, The Legend Continues was a mixed bag. It saw the long-awaited return of Ferrell’s mustached news anchor and crew, but it was filled with head-scratching lunacy rather than humor genuine enough to entertain audiences. The Legend Continues sees Ron Burgundy going head-to-head with several other news stations in the 1980s as television began evolving to bring niche news networks that run 24/7. Ron has a subplot where he’s separating from his wife, Veronica, but it isn’t fleshed out as well as it should. We do see their marriage face strife as their young son Walter falls victim to Ron’s absence. The plot’s main focus is on Ron and his pals, Brick, Champ, and Brian, having to change with the times through various moments of hilarity.

6. Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006)

McKay’s second team-up with Ferrell couldn’t catch the lightning in a bottle they harnessed with Anchorman. Ferrell turns in another strong comedic performance as Ricky in his first collaboration with John C. Reilly, who plays his racing partner Cal Naughton Jr. Sacha Baron Cohen plays European driver Jean Girard,  donning a French accent that’s so over-the-top. Michael Clarke Duncan and Amy Adams have small roles here as Bobby’s crew chief and assistant-turned-love-interest, respectively, and make the most of their screen time.

5. The Other Guys (2010)

The first of a couple of successful collaborations between Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg, The Other Guys is a clever action comedy that features some great humor. The duo steals the show as two backup detectives, Allen Gamble, and Terry Hoitz, respectively, who have to step into a case after two star detectives die (fantastically played by Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson). Just the “aim for the bushes” scene is enough to make anyone want a full-length feature with them.

There’s also an unforgettable running gag where Michael Keaton’s character, the captain, unknowingly quotes TLC songs. The success of Wahlberg here in one of his first studio comedic performances resulted in him branching out further as an actor, retaining Ferrell as a partner in the two Daddy’s Home films, which McKay produced.

4. The Big Short (2015)

McKay’s first jab at a non-raunchy comedy, The Big Short cemented his filmmaking style with precisely paced editing and dark humor. Considering the film’s focus on the 2008 Financial Crisis, it was no surprise that it was a bit convoluted for audiences. But the stellar ensemble and several cameos from personalities such as  Margot Robbie, Selena Gomez, and the late Anthony Bourdain made it all digestible. McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph had their train running while the tracks were being built, with the dialogue coming briskly and in your face. That strategy worked out, with the film netting five Oscar nominations, including the win for Best Adapted Screenplay. McKay’s status as a serious filmmaker was cemented… for better and for worse.

3. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)

One of Will Ferrell’s most iconic characters ever put to screen, Ron Burgundy, is easily the most recognizable and best character from the aughts. As for the movie itself, Anchorman is…kind of a big deal. Ferrell, of course, brings his a-game as Burgundy, as does Paul Rudd, David Koechner, and Steve Carell as his respective colleagues. Christina Applegate performs just as outstandingly as Ron’s love interest, Veronica. The suggestive humor works brilliantly, thanks to the leading cast and Ferrell and McKay’s script. There are also several iconic moments, such as the news channel fight, Afternoon Delight, Ron’s banter with his dog Baxter, and Brian, Champ, and Brick’s introductions. These moments are complimented with timeless lines, even if the jokes can get too repetitive or dumb.

2. Don't Look Up (2021)

McKay’s most recent film was the most distinct distillation of his two styles as it tracked two astronomers trying to spread the word that a comet is heading toward Earth. It was a collision of the serious tone and pacing of The Big Short and Vice, and the whacky humor of his earlier comedies. It may sometimes feel like an extended SNL sketch, but the extremely fun cast makes it all work. There was also more than just simple humor, with Nicholas Britell’s jazzy score receiving an Oscar nomination, and the visual effects certainly deserved that level of recognition.

1. Step Brothers (2008)

Will Ferrell’s most underrated movie and one of the best screwball comedies out there, Step Brothers sees Ferrell and John C. Reilly having to put up with each other in a blended family setting as their parents (Mary Steenburgen and Richard Jenkins) marry each other. Reilly joined Ferrell and McKay in the writer’s room, leading to many classic one-liners and an overall sillier plot. Both of the leads are their most unhinged, ranging from beating each other up to singing power ballads. It all may be dimwitted, but it’s easily the prime definition of a comedy to which viewers should turn their brains off.

You can follow Tyler and hear more of his thoughts on Twitter, Instagram, and Letterboxd.

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