The Other Guys

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The Other Guys
Directed by Adam McKay

You’d be forgiven for hoping The Other Guys, Adam McKay’s fourth feature-length collaboration with Will Ferrell, would mark a full-on return to form for a gifted comedic performer who hasn’t had an opportunity to actually be funny since, well, McKay’s last movie, Step Brothers. As it turns out, however, McKay chose a surprisingly ballsy tack this time around, choosing to ramp up the social commentary that subtly laced his previous movies (especially Talladega Nights’ implied takedown of an increasingly stupidity-sympathetic America) while cutting down on the loose comic riffing that provided much of those movies’ absurdist pleasures.

After a fakeout opening involving a pair of high-flying hero cops (Dwayne Johnson and Samuel L. Jackson), Guys quickly introduces us to by-the-book paperwork junkie Allen Gamble (Ferrell) and his partner, the short-tempered Terry Hoitz (Mark Wahlberg). Gamble has no qualms with staying at the precinct tackling seemingly minor code violations, but Hoitz dreams of being a superstar cop – despite having angered the entire city by injuring Derek Jeter. They seem to get their shot when they stumble onto a major white-collar scandal involving a scheming CEO (Steve Coogan), but their own inadequacies, as well as the interference of their colleagues and bosses, threaten to derail the investigation.

Wahlberg is an inspired choice to star opposite Ferrell, since he’s always flourished in a comedic environment – both the intentional (I ♥ Huckabees) and the unintentional (The Happening). It’s too bad, then, that he’s saddled with a fairly straightforward straight-/angry-man role that could have been handled by nearly any competent dramatic performer. Still, it’s fun to watch the two spar throughout the film’s first half, particularly whenever McKay lets them carry on a crushingly mundane argument for improbable lengths of time. (Recurring bits about Ferrell’s pimp past are considerably less amusing.)

The back half of the movie, surprisingly, is mostly devoted to the ins and outs of the case, including a denouement that invokes TARP funds and even a credits section that employs colorful graphs and Rage Against the Machine’s cover of “Maggie’s Farm.” McKay, who previously inserted overtly political humor into his work at SNL (like the infamous, and never rebroadcast, “Conspiracy Theory Rock”) as well as Ferrell’s one-man Broadway production You’re Welcome America, has largely kept overt social criticism out of his film projects. Luckily, he’s a polished director whose action setpieces never feel tossed-off (though they’re not quite on the level of Pineapple Express), but parts of The Other Guys feels awfully overburdened by McKay’s need to delve into the finer points of white-collar crime.

Yet there’s comething undeniably compelling about McKay’s argument. “This is not Miami Vice!” exclaims Ferrell to a confused Wahlberg when he asks if Coogan is using illegally diverted funds to purchase drugs. The Other Guys doesn’t quite gel as a socially conscious comedy, but it does manage to articulate a tricky point: in the era of Bernie Madoff, our culture’s continued fascination with overblown heroics and meaningless drug busts – either in fiction or reality – is increasingly untenable, even ludicrous. While it would have been nice for McKay to successfully tether that sentiment to a consistently entertaining film, The Other Guys is a commendable effort.

Simon Howell

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