[6 August 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It was so overdone in the ‘80s and ‘90s that it’s become a cliché: the mismatched odd couple members of a certain profession (cops, killers, convenience store clerks); the irritable, no nonsense supervisor; the larger than life antagonists; the surreal supporting characters. The buddy comedy has gone through a lot of changes since its high concept contrivances, and yet sadly, it’s still capable of suffering from the same old formulaic failings (isn’t that right, Cop Out???). Now comedy ‘partners’ Will Ferrell and Adam McKay (Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers) are taking on the genre, including all of its tainted truisms, with the scathing if scattered The Other Guys. When it works, it’s rip-roaringly hilarious. When it doesn’t it’s deader than the cinematic category it’s parodying.
Among New York City’s finest are the outsized police personalities Highsmith (Samuel L. Jackson) and Danson (Dwayne Johnson). Taking on the city’s crime with a slash and burn mentality, they are celebrated for their hair-raising histrionics. Unfortunately, this doesn’t leave a lot of room in the public eye for “the other guys’ - workaday cops like Detective Allen Gamble (Will Ferrell) and Detective Terry Hoitz (Mark Wahlberg). The former is a department accountant. The latter has a trigger happy past and has been demoted to desk duty. When Highsmith and Danson suddenly find themselves out of commission, the force starts looking for some new ‘heroes’. Initially, Gamble and Hoitz are overlooked for such high profile duty. But when they stumble across as multi-billion dollar fraud scheme involving investment high roller David Ershon (Steve Coogan), their irascible captain Mauch (Michael Keaton) thinks they might be up to the job.
Like the recent Dinner for Schmucks, a lot of The Other Guy‘s success rides on the star power silliness of Will Ferrell. Playing a button down pencil pusher who wants nothing to do with actual police field work, his stunted savant expertly measures and reflects the viability of this movie’s otherwise uneven humor. Whenever he’s getting on co-star Wahlberg’s nerves, whenever he is aggravating Keaton’s captain or referring to his otherwise smoking hot wife (Eva Mendes) as a “plain old battleaxe”, his Gamble is great. Even in the moments when insanity takes over and he starts channeling his inner action hero, the material works. What doesn’t is the bumbling backstory involving the character’s college life as an accidental pimp and the faux African American accent attributed to said alter ego, “Gator”. It seems forced, a written idiosyncrasy that plays pat - and rather desperate - in reality.
Luckily, the faux white slaver doesn’t show up a lot in The Other Guys. Instead, McKay does his best Hot Fuzz finessing of the overblown film type and, for a while at least, it brims with brilliant comic bombast. Jackson and Johnson are so pitch perfect as the retro supercops that when they “drop” out of the picture, you miss them horribly. In some ways, a battle between the daring duo of Highsmith and Danson and the dipsticks Gamble and Hoitz would have made for a masterful round of stereotype one-upmanship. But as he does with most of the movie, McKay defies expectations to go for something more strange, skewed, and surreal. From Wahlberg’s scenery chewing outbursts to Keaton’s twitchy TLC references, The Other Guys is a wealth of weird, wonderful parts.
Sadly, said segments don’t really add up to something wholly satisfying. Instead, we get the distinct impression of a project put together, piece meal, out of the best bits of adlibbing and preplanned improvisation. This makes for a very uneven experience. There are times when this movie drags like Ferrell’s flop Land of the Lost. There are times when it can easily match the insanity of Ricky Bobby’s ballad or Ron Burgundy’s legend - it all depends on the target and who’s taking it on. As competing cops in the precinct, Rob Riggle and Daman Wayans Jr. are completely unnecessary, running around mimicking the funnier material given to others. Even worse, once you move beyond the badge, the rest of the characters are nothing more than clever crates of cardboard. You expect more from Steve Coogan. Instead, he comes off as a more deluded David Frost. And as for Ray Stevenson, Anne Heche, or the various celebrity cameos? They’re nothing but gimmicks, recognizable without given much of anything to do.
On the other hand, the usually mundane Mendes steps up her limited acting game to give Ferrell a real run for his moronic money. As the doctor who fell in love with Gamble during an embarrassing trip to the ER, she’s clueless and yet clued-in, knocking down dopey punchlines with the best of them. That McKay doesn’t alter her personal perception, even when Wahlberg is making major sexy beast cow eyes at her is right up this movie’s modus operandi alley. We expect the affair, and instead, get joke after successful joke. In fact, a fine little comedy could have been made out of the whole mismatched cops with the differing style/sensibility dynamic. But The Other Guys has bigger concepts to mock - and this may be where it goes astray.
When Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright, and Nick Frost took on the genre types with their drop dead masterpiece Hot Fuzz, they celebrated the excesses and the excuses. They turned the entire project into a love letter - to both the movies of the era and the audiences who lapped them up. The Other Guys doesn’t begin to address that dichotomy. Instead, it recognizes the truisms and then trods upon them, with or without smarts. This is still a wickedly funny film, delivering more chuckles per chance than most of the comedies this Summer. But when you’ve got a subject as ripe as the mangled machismo of the buddy cop film, you should have something more to offer than pot shots. The Other Guys is a decent, hit or miss experience. Luckily, the blows it lands are superior to the swipes it botches.