'The Other Guys': Stupid Smarts, Big Laughs
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
"The Other Guys," the fourth big-screen collaboration between director Adam McKay and star Will Ferrell, works remarkably well as both a buddy-cop action-flick parody and as a lightly pointed, gently brandished poke at the culture of greed ruining our 401(k)s. It's also one of the better McKay-Ferrell collaborations -- in the top 50 percent, alongside "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby" and decidedly better than "Anchorman" and "Step Brothers" -- for two very specific reasons.
First is the presence of Mark Wahlberg as Detective Terry Hoitz, a rough-and-tumble NYPD detective in need of some career redemption. He is partnered up with the placid, off-centered Allen Gamble (Ferrell), who's been transferred over to the street squad after extensive experience with the Forensic Accounting team. Second is that Hoitz and Gamble are trying to get out from under the shadow of supercops Highsmith (Samuel L. Jackson) and Danson (Dwayne Johnson) by working an interconnected series of building code violations, smash-and-grab robberies and multibillion-dollar financial swindles. Thus, McKay, Ferrell and Wahlberg have their flights of fancy anchored by the plot-driven need to move the case forward, which lends the enterprise a welcome focus and momentum. Much as Ricky Bobby had to get back to the track, Gamble and Hoitz have to get back to the case, which means that "The Other Guys" does not get overly enamored of its randomness and float off into thin, unfunny air, like "Step Brothers" and, to a lesser extent, "Anchorman" did.
"The Other Guys" has its digressions, random and strange, but they're also funny, and never overwhelming or fruitless. Hoitz cannot understand what Gamble's bombshell wife, Sheila (Eva Mendes, game with gams), sees in him. A night of carousing (set to the catchy-but-deadly smallpox-like strains of the Black Eyed Peas' "Imma Be") goes ludicrously off-course, until Gamble notes the next day, "I got so drunk last night, I thought a tube of toothpaste was astronaut food." Now, this line is not intrinsically funny, and yet when Ferrell's Gamble -- who is somehow straight-laced and yet completely insane -- delivers it, it gets a laugh. In part because that is what Ferrell does, and also in part because he's applying himself here with a focus some of his recent films have lacked.
But then the financial bigwig Hoitz and Gamble are tracking, David Ershon (played with oily unctuousness by Steve Coogan), will make a mistake that demands investigation, or the aggrieved Capt. Mauch (Michael Keaton, dry and wry) will call them into his office for a dressing-down, and "The Other Guys" gets back on track with the comforting smoothness of a subway line pulling into the designated stops of the cop film. McKay has hired the behind-the-lens crew of an action film, not a comedy (cinematographer Oliver Wood shot all three of the "Bourne" films; stunt coordinator Conrad E. Palmisano has worked on everything from "X-Men 3" to "Lethal Weapon 4"), and while we never think of "The Other Guys" as an action film, the action in it is smooth and crisp and competent.
But the real reason to see the film is Ferrell and Wahlberg. Ferrell's Gamble is, as noted, somehow a nebbish and a nutjob (like when he thinks Hoitz has asked him to play "bad cop/badder cop" with a suspect), and Ferrell, for the most part, brings it in a little bit and truly works. Wahlberg's Hoitz is a tough guy with a screwball sensitive side, busted down to traffic duty and yet turning it into a mode of self-expression, his serious demeanor making his nonsense moments more, not less, appealing. Unlike Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan in the slack, dawdling "Cop Out," Wahlberg and Ferrell have actual chemistry, and it's focused into a real, although hardly realistic, plot, and that makes all the difference.
The movie also pokes a few holes in our cultural understanding of truth and justice: We have armies of cops chasing down stick-up men who use a gun on the street to grab a few dollars, but very little oversight for the stick-up men who use a computer on Wall Street to grab a few million. Stick around for the closing credits of "The Other Guys," not only for a nice closing blooper, but, more interestingly, infographics depicting, for one example, the current ratio of CEO pay to worker pay -- while Eva Mendes and Cee-Lo Green duet on a number reprised from the film, "Pimps Don't Cry." Highbrow, lowbrow and no-brow, inspired by improvisation yet connected to the structure of a plot and the traditions of a genre, "The Other Guys" is that rare modern comedy as smart as it is crazy, and as skillful as it is silly.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.