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What’s behind Will Ferrell’s comeback? (And is it one?)

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There’s been a lot of talk in Hollywood circles on Monday about Will Ferrell suddenly proving supple at the box office with a $35-million opening -- and likely $100-million domestic total -- for ‘The Other Guys.’

Theories abound about Ferrell’s success with the movie (which began life as ‘The B Team’ and changed names to avoid confusion with ‘The A-Team’). After all, the actor had had his share of duds over the last few years with the likes of ‘Land of the Lost’ and ‘Semi-Pro.’

Ferrell hasn’t changed his own brand of comedy that much between the hits and the failures, cultivating in most of these films a distinct dopily over-the-top persona with more success than he rightly deserves. So explanations have gone elsewhere. ‘The Other Guys,’ the experts say, is the kind of material Ferrell excels at (a more recognizable genre like a cop comedy). It had a well-crafted marketing campaign. It pairs Ferrell with sure-handed director Adam McKay. And the movie benefited from either smart or lucky timing (a comedy released late in a summer that’s largely been devoid of them).

There’s truth in all of these explanations. But maybe most salient is that in this hit, and nearly every other of his over the last four years, Ferrell had a charismatic and top-name co-star. He has one in ‘The Other Guys’ (Mark Wahlberg), just as he did in ‘Step Brothers’ (John C. Reilly), ‘Blades of Glory’ (Jon Heder) and ‘Talladega Nights’ (Sacha Baron Cohen, though with a little less screen time than the others). In his failures? Not so much.

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The big-name co-star gives any film a marketing edge, since it means double the promotional power and, for audiences, twice the reason to see the film. But there may be a more substantive explanation as to why this works for Ferrell movies. The actor seems to do his best work, or at least the work we like most, when he’s playing off someone. All four of his recent hits are a type of odd-couple comedy, while all three of his recent failures are not. In the last half-decade, this, it seems, is how we prefer to see Ferrell -- as a foil. We’d rather the actor share the screen than dominate it.

Looking back at Ferrell’s recent trajectory, something else jumps out. Since ‘Talladega Nights became a mega-hit four summers ago, the actor has had a number of failures and a number of successes. But he hasn’t had any of them consecutively. His movies have essentially alternated at the box office: ‘Talladega’ was a $148-million barnstormer, then ‘Stranger Than Fiction’ made a modest $40 million. He came back with a tidy $118 million for ‘Blades of ‘Glory,’ then sank with the $33 million of ‘Semi-Pro.’ ‘Step Brothers’ ushered in a comeback with a $100-million gross ... and then ‘Land of the Lost’ put him in Nowheresville again. Now he’s back with ‘The Other Guys.’

Statisticians may call this an anomaly. When stars practice a one-for-us-and-one-for-them approach, after all, alternating results make sense. But outside of ‘Fiction,’ all of these movies are studio comedies.

Yet in light of what appears to be our preferred way for watching Ferrell -- in a certain dosage, with another star on screen to absorb some of the oxygen -- the every-other-year pattern makes a lot of sense. We still like seeing the actor. Just not all the time.

-- Steven Zeitchik

http://twitter.com/ZeitchikLAT

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