Adam McKay’s transition from silly comedies to serious social satire has made him one of the most fascinating American directors working today. But if you reexamine his many broadly humorous hits, you’ll find that most of them already contain serious subtext that presaged his later career shift. But how do those early comedies compare with his more recent ambitious, complicated political commentaries? Let’s look:
8. “Wake Up, Ron Burgundy: The Lost Movie” (2004)
Lots of movies have deleted scenes, but Adam McKay’s directorial debut “Anchorman” had so much extra material that McKay was able to make a feature-length movie out of it, released as a special feature on the DVD (exclusively at Best Buy). A lot of “Wake Up, Ron Burgundy” consists of alternate versions of scenes fans are already familiar with, flimsily tied together with an awkward voice-over narration, but there are also giant storylines that didn’t make the original cut, including a bank robbery subplot starring Maya Rudolph. “Wake Up, Ron Burgundy” barely qualifies as a real film, but the highlights are funny enough to earn a place on McKay’s official filmography.
7. “Step Brothers” (2008)
There are some who call McKay’s “Step Brothers” a comedy classic, and sure enough, it’s yet another excuse for Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly to let fly as irresponsible man-children who do silly and embarrassing things. But there’s a strange, depressing melancholy to this film that sinks in as you realize that these two oafs aren’t just living with their newly married parents: They are also completing destroying their parents’ lives. Ferrell and Reilly are in it for the for yucks but Richard Jenkins and Mary Steenburgen are playing the same exact scenes as tragedies. That gives “Step Brothers” an unpleasant tone that might be more fitting for a Harmony Korine or Todd Solondz–esque fable of suburban misery and horror.
6. “Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby” (2006)
McKay’s second feature stars Will Ferrell as Ricky Bobby, a dim-witted superstar NASCAR driver, and John C. Reilly as his childhood friend Cal, who steps into the limelight after Ricky Bobby gets in a car crash and loses his confidence. “Talladega Nights” is easily McKay’s most conventional feature, with an old-fashioned sports-movie structure (which would later be recycled for “Cars 3”), a run time that pushes the limits of patience and little in the way of subtext. But Ferrell and Reilly — in their first of many comedy team-ups — are very funny together, and that’s enough to make “Talledega Nights” watchable.
5. “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues” (2013)
The long-awaited sequel to “Anchorman” didn’t change the world, and it didn’t reinvent comedy as we knew it. It wasn’t even as good as the original. But it’s still incredibly funny. Ron Burgundy breaks into the newly created world of 24-hour cable news and discovers that he desperately needs great ratings to stay relevant. So the short-sighted buffoon invents every terrible, irresponsible thing about modern news reporting, arguing that only an idiot would celebrate when the news abandoned its credibility. The sting of that commentary gets you through some of the hit-or-miss jokes.
4. “The Other Guys” (2010)
Most buddy-cop movies are about viscerally exciting crimes, like shootouts and serial killers. McKay’s clever satire “The Other Guys” follows mismatched detectives, played by Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg, who team up to stop a white-collar scam. Ferrell and Wahlberg go through most of the familiar, action-packed cop movie clichés — but they’re cleverly twisted into something knowing and hilarious, like the unexpected revelation that explosions are nothing to walk away from. Sharp about the genre and righteously angry at topics the genre usually ignores, “The Other Guys” would be even higher on the list were it not for an ugly, unfunny subplot about Will Ferrell being “hilariously” emotionally abusive to his loving wife, played by Eva Mendes.
3. “Vice” (2018)
After his informative and novel “The Big Short,” McKay returned to confrontational sociopolitical commentary with a biographical dark comedy about Dick Cheney. “Vice” plays with biographical movie conventions and expectations, and stubbornly refuses to reveal a softer side to George W. Bush’s vice president, who (as played by Christian Bale) comes across as unapologetically despicable. McKay’s stalwart commitment to only one political perspective makes “Vice” feel one-sided, but at least he’s punching upward, using his comedic and didactic storytelling devices to illuminate the complex legacy of Cheney’s life and career.
2. “The Big Short” (2015)
Adam McKay’s Oscar-winning screenplay to “The Big Short,” adapted from the nonfiction book by Michael Lewis, is a marvel. The sprawling narrative — with multiple protagonists and frequent fourth-wall-breaking asides to describe complex economic theories in entertaining, easily digestible ways — should be impenetrable, yet it comes across as inviting and organic. It’s the story of the accountants who foresaw the collapse of the housing market, were horrified to discover just how inevitable it was and then mostly used that insight for their own, private gain. As McKay peels each layer of our financial façade, we marvel at just how incompetent the whole system is, and feel a tightening sensation of terror because, for the most part, very little has changed.
1. “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” (2004)
Adam McKay has evolved as a filmmaker since his directorial debut, but none of his other films have been funnier than “Anchorman,” bolstered by McKay’s famous penchant for social commentary. Will Ferrell stars as Ron Burgundy, a sexist anchorman for a San Diego television station in the 1970s, who falls in love and then brutally feuds with Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate), the station’s first female anchor. Paul Rudd, Steve Carell and David Koechner co-star as Burgundy’s news crew, whose oafish boys club gets ripped asunder. The broadness of the “dumb” comedy only highlights just how stupid sexists are, so McKay’s film gets away with its most immature jokes, building to a hilarious, surreal and ultimately healthy conclusion.