Will & Harper (2024)


Will & Harper Review

You will laugh, you will cry when ‘Barb and Star Go to Del Mar’ director Josh Greenbaum shadows Ferrell and former ‘SNL’ head writer Harper Steele on a revealing (entry-level) road trip.

Will Ferrell has some pretty cool friends. That should not come as a surprise to anyone who knows him: After seven seasons on “Saturday Night Live,” he is still close with some of his old co-stars (Seth Meyers, Tina Fey, Kristen Wiig). Less familiar but no less fascinating is the story of how former “SNL” writer Harper Steele became buddies with Ferrell back in the day when few others believed in the wild-and-crazy guy’s talent.

Structured as an on-camera road trip between two longtime friends whose bond has been forged by laughter (and tears) with occasional “Borat”-style stunts thrown in for good measure “Will & Harper” introduces this amazing woman to the world. Technically speaking, she’s new to Will too; though they met six decades earlier while working at NBC’s 30 Rock during the height of disco fever, Steele was living as a man then. But all that changed one year ago, when she sent Ferrell a long email announcing her plan to transition at 61. Moved by her vulnerability, he proposed that they tour America together: Just Will and Harper (plus a modest-size crew that can stay offscreen).

The feel-good film hails from “Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar” director Josh Greenbaum, who here eschews fly-on-the-wall vérité for a more worked-over, multi-camera reality-TV approach. The journey stretches from New York City to Santa Monica Pier redneck bars and dirt track races along the way giving these old friends ample time to catch up on everything that’s happened since Steele first felt compelled to become herself.

They start at 30 Rock, where Steele was head writer in the ’80s, bumping into Lorne Michaels and subjecting the nervous producer to a very long group hug. (Michaels’ reaction might be taken as a metaphor for the entire movie, which goes out of its way to be loving and supportive, overwhelming any resistance with sheer positivity.) After catching up with some “SNL” alums at Palm restaurant, the two friends hit the road in Steele’s vintage wood-paneled Grand Wagoneer: If “Transamerica” hadn’t already been taken, that title would work for this trip through mostly red states. Two decades later (and largely thanks to increased trans visibility on-screen), the conversation has changed though it still needs to get much more frank in many quarters, since most Americans don’t have a trans friend as open as Steele.

Ferrell asks questions not the tough ones skeptics and haters might pose but personal ones. How did she choose her new name? Is she planning bottom surgery? What kind of partner does she see herself with next? In some ways, he set up this 16-day journey for himself, genuinely wanting to understand such a daunting issue and support his friend to the best of his abilities but knowing it would pay off for broader audiences. “Will & Harper” could reach demographics who wouldn’t entertain such an entry-level discussion were it not for Ferrell’s celeb status (ideally counteracting some of the damage done by Dave Chappelle).

Predictably, Ferrell turns everything into comedy. His openness to roles (“Elf” is the perfect example) and a readiness to act on crazy ideas while remaining childlike in some ways (Jackass-y, but laughs) are his star qualities intensified. Emotional setups here pay off like great jokes do–Wiig delivers the most satisfying one through the end credits.

Steele has been behind some of Ferrell’s wackiest stunts over time, from Spanish-language one-off “Casa de mi Padre” to his 2015 Lifetime movie, “A Deadly Adoption.” Surely “Will & Harper” will offer a few new zany situations. At one point in Texas, they stop at a restaurant where Ferrell puts on his Sherlock Holmes costume and tries to finish a 72-ounce steak. It’s unclear what he was thinking, but it doesn’t go well. After seeing him in character, witnesses seemed confused about what to make of the woman sitting across from him, attacking them online (one crank calls Ferrell a “satanic illuminati pedophile,” giving the actor a taste of the hate trans people routinely experience online).

Vegas goes better for them that night though Ferrell seems to have funny idea about trying to keep a low profile there too. These are comic gold bits; Greenbaum and editor Monique Zavistovski actually do cut around some of Ferrell’s ticklish tendencies that clownish impulse where he wants everything to be part of the joke cherry-picking the best examples and otherwise striving for sincere emotional connection. Tellingly, Steele strives for seriousness throughout. If anything this movie is less comedic than you might expect even as it makes pit stops for a hot air balloon ride with Will Forte or Molly Shannon giving her a pedicure.

“Will & Harper” doesn’t leave much room for negativity, instead it shows how nice complete strangers are to her everywhere she goes. That was Steele’s big fear: Returning to the dive bars and truck stops she once frequented as a man, would people now insult or attack her? Having Ferrell and a camera crew along certainly skews the experiment in her favor (these are hardly low-key, anonymous appearances), but the reception is infinitely warmer than she could have imagined.

Ferrell is one hell of a trans ally, sitting courtside with Steele at a Pacers game or correcting strangers when they misgender his amiga. Everything they do together is an education for Ferrell as well as anyone who may not know how to interact with trans people. But this down-to-earth trip should be even more valuable for another audience those with gender dysphoria issues of their own, who look up to Steele as a role model. It can be incredibly scary to come out, and Steele is eloquent about that; open too.

It might seem trite to say that any movie is what the world needs right now, but that’s “Will & Harper.” In a world where it can be hard for anyone to feel beautiful let alone someone like Steele, who society seems to want to pretend doesn’t exist at all this film brings the trans experience down to earth. And Ferrell’s character? He doesn’t just accept his new gal pal on her own terms; he asks how he can make her more comfortable in her own skin. What a role model. We should all have friends like this.

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