Also in Slate: Jessica Winter explains what The Other Guys director Adam McKay learned from Luis Buñuel and John Cassavetes.
While Will Ferrell was off playing with dinosaurs, Zach Galifianakis became the funniest man in America. Or if it's not Galifianakis, it's Tracy Morgan, or Seth Rogen, or Jon Stewart, or Stephen Colbert, all of whom now have more cultural cachet than the guy with the many leather-bound books. It's not that Ferrell has gotten less funny—it's that no amount of comedy genius could salvage the miserably scripted Semi-Pro and Land of the Lost.
In Ferrell's defense, those recent stinkers didn't feature his yang—former Saturday Night Live head writer (and Ferrell's Funny or Die co-conspirator) Adam McKay, who wrote and directed Anchorman, Talladega Nights, and Step Brothers. The minds behind "I like to think of Jesus as a mischievous badger" have reunited for the buddy-cop comedy The Other Guys (Columbia). Has Ferrell made a triumphant return? Not really. Despite the occasional dose of McFerrellian ridiculousness, The Other Guys never hits the peaks of the duo's previous collaborations—there's just a bit too much formula and not quite enough insane-asylum lunacy.
The Other Guys actually suffers by comparison to its own madcap opening sequence. The Rock and Samuel L. Jackson storm through the first two scenes as Danson and Highsmith, a pair of sexually voracious, trigger-happy lawmen who blow up the Trump Tower to catch a perp and party with Brody Jenner, Bai Ling, and that "little short bitch from Jersey Shore." The Other Guys quickly, and very funnily, kills off the hero cops, shifting our focus to the movie's bumbling protagonists, the straight-laced, oversize-glasses-wearing, Little River Band-loving Gamble (Ferrell) and the violence-prone loose cannon Hoitz (Mark Wahlberg). When you pull that switcheroo, the heroes you shove into the spotlight better be more interesting than the ones you dangle in front of us and then yank away. To see how it's done, watch Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. The Other Guys, by contrast, shows what happens when a movie is too willing to trade its vitality for a big early laugh.
Left alone, Ferrell and Wahlberg struggle with the constraints of a well-worn genre. What happens when a mild-mannered accountant and an insult-heaving hothead try to put the screws to a rapacious, scheming capitalist (Steve Coogan)? Pretty much what you'd expect, including the car chases. With The Other Guys' comedy kingpin under wraps as a strait-laced "paper bitch," McKay et al. needed to give the less yuk-inducing Wahlberg the gift of better lines. But Wahlberg doesn't say anything memorable the entire movie, perhaps on account of the movie's PG-13 rating—his tough-talking cop in The Departed was a lot more fun to watch, thanks to the 50 different ways he had to say Go fuck yourself. By the time Ferrell sheds his tie and gets manic, the movie's formula has gotten a little too stale to salvage.
In fairness to McKay and Ferrell, their movies are properly evaluated less as coherent narratives than as sequences of quotable nuggets. Even so, The Other Guys has too few quotable moments—I'm partial to Ferrell's inspired rant about how a pack of tuna could stalk and devour a pride of lions—to fill the gaps between the big laughs, which are yawning compared to Anchorman and Talladega Nights. One big reason for this deficiency is that the supporting cast doesn't offer enough support after Danson and Highsmith's untimely passing—Eva Mendes just stands around looking pretty, while Michael Keaton's captain does little else besides unintentionally quoting songs from the TLC back catalog.
At times, The Other Guys' cop clichés get shoved aside for a critique of the financial world, as Coogan's slimy, Bernie Madoff clone defrauds his investors of $32 billion. Strangely, the movie saves its sharpest critiques for the closing credits, when a series of slick charts and graphs detail how Ponzi schemes work, how the ratio of CEO-to-employee salaries has skyrocketed, and how much AIG executives have received in bonus payouts. If it was a little more ambitious, The Other Guys could've been the funniest episode of Planet Money ever. Instead, it's just another cop comedy.
Watch a scene from The Other Guys: