Truth be told, I haven't loved any of Will Ferrell's previous collaborations with writer/director Adam McKay. I like all of them to varying degrees (Step Brothers probably edging out Talladega Nights with Anchorman trailing in the back), but the duo's dedication to a joke once they've got the ball rolling means there are always recurring gags, and in some cases, even extensive sequences that drive me nuts. McKay also seems to enjoy the aspects of Ferrell's comic persona I like the least, which then get unleashed on the audience with equal force.
Their latest effort, The Other Guys, is a whole new beast (a lion-eating fish, maybe, or a flying peacock). All of their comedies have major targets beneath the surface (chauvinism, intolerance, and adult immaturity, respectively), but this one ramps its sights up to corporate criminals, and the way the government bends over backwards to let big business get away with whatever it wants. Somehow, Ferrell and McKay pack this weighty, incendiary spitball into a buddy-cop movie and lob it at the screen, and even if I didn't find the end result hilarious, I have to admire the guts -- and straight-up insanity -- required to make and market the results as a Hollywood blockbuster comedy. If someone told me Sony greenlit this film on the cast and action parody premise alone without reading a page of the script, I'd believe it.
Ferrell plays NYPD accountant Allen Gamble, content to sit at his desk doing the stacks of paperwork left behind by city heroes P.K. Highsmith (Samuel L. Jackson) and Christopher Danson (Dwayne Johnson). Sitting across from him is his unhappy partner Terry Hoitz (Mark Wahlberg), who desperately wants to get out on the street and do some real policework, who gets his opportunity (and forces Allen along) when Highsmith and Danson are unexpectedly sidelined. The pair quickly latch onto a scheme involving a lack of scaffolding, $32 billion in lottery money, and a suspicious businessman named David Ershon (Steve Coogan), but resistance actually comes from inside -- the captain (Michael Keaton) and fellow cops Martin (Rob Riggle) and Fosse (Damon Wayans Jr.), intent on stepping into Highsmith and Danson's shoes.
Both of the film's lead roles are fairly one-note (Ferrell dithers, Wahlberg yells), but the plot itself and the script's numerous distractions from it become escalatingly ludicrious. McKay finds the farthest beach from comedy islands inhabited by Tim and Eric and The State/Stella, and dips his toe into them, giving an otherwise standard Ferrell vehicle the perfect comic twist. Before they step aside for Gamble and Hoitz to take center stage, Highsmith and Danson's send-off is just plain amazing, as is the supremely silly fight that ensues just a few minutes later. Keaton is also one of the movie's secret weapons, commanding every single one of his scenes with expert timing and delivery. That The Other Guys (and his equally good work in Toy Story 3) could theoretically resurrect his career is a worthwhile achievement in and of itself.
Beyond that, McKay has grown as a director. 75% of the film is pretty straightforward, but there are little capsules of flair, like a drinking binge shot like the popular Adam Berg Philips ad where the camera roves through a moment in a bank robbery as if it's a 3D photograph. McKay also stages the action scenes with surprising clarity (yet another vivid illustration of why quick-cut action in movies pales in comparison), and there are at least one or two moments of flat-out comic genius. The first is simple: a brilliantly edited sequence in which Coogan bribes Ferrell and Wahlberg with tickets to events, but the other, a story about Allen's college days, has a slow build that borders on miraculous and perfect delivery on Ferrell's part. Had it been an SNL sketch, it might rank among the five best sketches he'd ever done.
I walked out of The Other Guys not knowing what to make of it, and I've spent all of today feeling like it was a quantum leap forward. On the surface, I admit I didn't laugh any more or less than I did at Ferrell/McKay's other films (well, maybe a little), but there's such a willingness to try and do anything here that it feels almost anarchic. I've seen plenty of funny comedies in the last few years, but this is the first one I felt was risky, almost as if the film was living off of its own sense of recklessness. If Ferrell and McKay can keep making movies that capture that attitude while continuing to push the envelope forward, that's something I can get behind. And it's got a great Alex Rodriguez joke, to boot.
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