What makes Will Ferrell an American treasure — even in The Other Guys, which isn’t up to his best work — is his large-spiritedness. His heroes are oblivious to the point of imbecility, but it’s not the imbecility that he’s satirizing. It’s the fear. It’s the lengths to which men will go to keep from looking vulnerable (i.e., feminine). His preening Ron Burgundy in Anchorman; his swaggering yet befuddled racer Ricky Bobby in Talladega Nights; his trash-talking figure skater Chazz Michael Michaels in Blades of Glory: They’re child-men who put on macho airs and look more and more like big babies. In his one-man show, You’re Welcome, America, Ferrell portrays George W. Bush as an overentitled adolescent posing haplessly (but with deadly consequences) as a Texas cowboy. Best of all is his unemployed 39-going-on-12-year-old Brennan Huff in Step Brothers, which I think is the great American broad comedy of the last decade. Along with director and co-writer Adam McKay, Ferrell created an environment in which he and John C. Reilly and Richard Jenkins and Mary Steenburgen and Kathryn Hahn could say or do anything, take after take. Check out the extended and alternate scenes on the DVD. These folks are in the zone.
The Other Guys was directed by McKay but co-written by Chris Henchy instead of Ferrell. It’s a buddy-cop satire, which at this point is redundant — or, irony being ironic nowadays, doubly redundant. Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg play New York detectives Allen Gamble and Terry Hoitz, both in the shadow of hot-dog cops played by Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson. The movie opens with Jackson and Johnson on a high-speed chase, jumping in and out of cars and trucks while blowing stuff up and trading one-liners. McKay doesn’t have the know-how to shoot action scenes with wit or elegance, so this noisy start is hardly different from the crude, big-budget action films being parodied. But The Other Guys improves exponentially when Jackson (who kills the fun by overacting) and Johnson leave the picture — on a high — and Gamble and Hoitz try to fill their shoes.
With his tightly curled hair and wire rims, Ferrell’s Gamble is a study in wonkish repression. He trained as an accountant and never wants to leave his desk, whereas Wahlberg’s Hoitz has been confined to his desk after shooting a major sports figure (no spoiler!). Hoitz wears black leather sports jackets and impugns Gamble’s masculinity, but with poetic discernment: “The sound of your piss hitting the urinal — it sounds feminine.” Every time the movie seems to be settling into a formula groove, a line like that pops out, and the accumulation of absurdities is dizzying. As I read through my notes, I’m laughing like an idiot: the Prius. Dirty Mike and his homeless orgies. “Good cop/bad cop.” Jersey Boys. “Sarcastic ballet.” Christinith. “No, seriously — who is that?” You don’t know what I’m talking about but when you see the movie, those words will have you doubled over, too.
The Other Guys’ narrative clearly engaged McKay, Henchy, and Ferrell as outraged progressives, not storytellers. The plot has something to do with Steve Coogan as a high-risk money man who’s billions in the red, and Anne Heche — seriously underused — as the head of a multinational corporation at risk of collapse. I barely paid the stock-exchange milieu any mind until a late scene in which Gamble taunts an SEC executive for his sterling oversight of Enron, Madoff, etc. (by which I mean etc. etc. etc.) and the unprecedented closing, in which the credits run side by side with sundry graphs and captions: The ratio of CEOs salaries to workers' salaries over the last few decades; the amount of bonus money given to executives at companies taking bailouts. Maybe instead of another buddy-cop movie the trio ought to have made a comedy about an SEC dummy.
Oh, well, let’s be thankful, in this grim summer, for even a second-tier Ferrell-McKay comedy. As the other guys’ commanding officer, Michael Keaton still has his crack timing — although he’s best when he doesn’t look as if he’s trying to be funny. Wahlberg doesn’t so much send up his own peculiar combination of addled sweetness and working-class thuggishness as play it absolutely straight, no wink-winking — and he’s brilliant. In his best scene, he meets his partner’s wife, a smoking-hot doctor played by Eva Mendes, and has trouble connecting the dots. There are, it turns out, a lot of dots to connect. Ferrell’s Gamble has a backstory and a subtext. He’s a wonk, a nerd, a stud, a gentleman, and a pimp — a chivalric abuser. Say this for Ferrell and McKay, they know how to deform — strangely and hilariously — their own formulas.
I’m less excited by The Other Guys than by what might come next for Ferrell and McKay. A political comedy? (Please!) A business comedy? (Please, please.) A great black comedy of war, like Duck Soup? My advice to them is to aim high — and then get really, really low.