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Film Review: Blades of Glory

Blades of Glory (2007; Directed by Will Speck and Josh Gordon)

At many points during this film, I found myself wondering the same thing. No, not “Why am I watching this?” (though that may have bubbled to the surface on occasion, I grant). What I repeatedly wondered was if figure skating really needed the satire treatment that Blades of Glory provides, or if it was indeed even possible to accomplish anything of the satirical kind with a sport that is so obviously absurd and richly mockable in the first place.

With its flamboyant costumes, corny musical selection and dubious conceptions of “artistic merit” that are at once oddly technical and ripe for corrupt exploitation, competitive figure skating is such an easy mark for comedy that the most notable thing about a movie like Blades of Glory is that it bothers to ply its trade at all. And yet, not only is it not unclever in its skewering of an athletic competition that practically invites mocking dismissal, it affords figure skating (a tough, physical, and even dangerous activity despite its flowery image) a begrudging respect as well.

Directed by Will Speck and Josh Gordon (not that directorial credits matter in a movie of this sort) from a script by more writers than I care to mention, Blades of Glory focuses on two fierce rivals in men’s singles figure skating whose animosity explodes into an embarrassing public dust-up after they tie for a gold medal that gets them both banned from solo competition. The lusty sex maniac Chazz Michael Michaels (Will Ferrell) and coddled, squeaky-clean Jimmy MacElroy (Jon Heder) find an unlikely comeback route when the latter’s former coach (Craig T. Nelson) suggests that they team up to compete in the pairs competition.

The entire situation, as well as the movie’s execution of it, is a tender-footed negotiation of the obvious slippages of gender roles inherent to men’s figure skating. Often dismissed by the traditionally masculine in overtly homophobic terms (“That shit is so gay,” said the dude in the oversized Dallas Cowboys jersey), figure skating, like its blade-less fellow art of dance, actually features a highly stringent traditional code of men’s and women’s roles, with gendered signals embedded in even the smallest wrinkles of performative motion and ruthlessly policed by coaches and choreographers. Pairs choreography privileges the romantic tropes and strong-male, precious-female roles of ballroom dance, and men’s singles has evolved into a dichotomous battleground between masculine skaters privileging athleticism and more flamboyant performers exploring the much-maligned “artistic” element (and sometimes coming across to their critics as androgynous or even effeminate in the process).

Blades of Glory moves gingerly on thin ice when it comes to these implications. It’s sensitive and progressive enough to evade lazy gay-bashing jokes while at the same time firmly constructing both halves of the same-sex skating partnership as unambiguously heterosexual. Jimmy MacElroy has a female love interest (a mousified Jenna Fischer) and Chazz is an outrageous lothario, with Ferrell mixing together a delicious cocktail of confidence, stupidity, and outlandish belief in his own sexual prowess that is the film’s laugh highlight (the speech about his hairbrush is alone worth the price of admission). Hetero poses aside, though, it’s made crystal clear that Chazz is the alpha male to Jimmy’s gentler female substitute in this particular athletic partnership, and homosexual implications aren’t given an iota of oxygen to breathe.

I’ve long enjoyed Ferrell’s film work, even if he seems to have been running in place for the last few years (the forthcoming Anchorman sequel does not bode well for a performer who seemed to be branching out with more nuanced material like Stranger Than Fiction). In the midst of a largely throwaway yukfest, his Chazz Michael Michaels may be what finally converted me to an acolyte of the breadth of his comic abilities, mind you. Will Arnett and Amy Poehler are also very funny in supporting roles as the central duo’s implacable on- and off-ice enemies, and Nelson suggests that Mr. Incredible may have been the harbinger of a late-career renaissance (that never quite came).

But Jon Heder’s one-note performance of squeaky-clean dweebiness (while it may indeed be the joke) drags things down a little. Heder is a devout Mormon who shies away from portraying objectionable content of any sort onscreen, and the movie feels like it was shot around his prudish objections (and indeed, rumours swirled around the production that it was). At all times, there seems on Heder’s part an unspoken refusal to be party to the sort of raunchy humour that populates most Hollywood comedies, and this works at cross-purposes to the movie’s apparent aims. The scrubbed content of his breakout role in Napoleon Dynamite was refreshing enough, but Blades of Glory suggested that Heder was not capable of anything more than endless repetitions of that iconic (for better or worse, depending on who you ask) debut performance. He also isn’t up to the quality of pros like Ferrell, Nelson, Arnett, and Poehler, quality which can shine through even middling material like this. Little wonder that his feature film career did not feature much more glory after his tepid, proscribed effort in this uneven release.

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