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Entries in Other Guys/The [2010] (1)


The Other Guys, 2010

Laugh, Monkey! Laugh!

“Well, it's one louder, isn't it? It's not ten. You see, most blokes, you know, will be playing at ten. You're on ten here, all the way up, all the way up, all the way up, you're on ten on your guitar. Where can you go from there? Where?” 

                                         --Christopher Guest, This is Spinal Tap

Great comedies are built on surprise.  You can watch a movie with the most familiar plot and still laugh hysterically if the performers do something unexpected.  Think of John Belushi’s “I’m a zit” scene in Animal House, or Vince Vaughn’s “earmuffs” warning in Old School.  The gags elevated the formula because the writers and actors stepped outside the box of the audience’s expectations of the dumb college comedy.

Adam McKay’s new film, The Other Guys, surprised me quite a bit.  I was blown away by how such a talented cast of comedic performers could turn a big-budget cop farce into the most generic, unfunny endurance test since Kevin Smith’s Cop Out.  This movie contains not one original joke or premise, though it tries very, very hard to sell itself as a hilarious parody of the mismatched buddy cop movies of the 1980s.  I knew going in that I was in for a rough ride—I’ve written elsewhere about the trailer’s inability to make me crack a smile—but I had no idea that McKay and company would sink so low in their cynical attempts to squeeze money from their target audience of brain-dead teenagers.

The first ten minutes are kind of okay, opening on an over-the-top high-speed police chase through downtown Manhattan.  A couple of tough-talking bad-ass cops named Danson and Highsmith (Dwayne Johnson and Samuel L. Jackson, respectively) tear up the streets in pursuit of machine-gun-wielding drug dealers—all the way cracking one-liners and straining the believability of their actions further and further (at one point, Danson commandeers a tour bus after he and Highsmith crash their first car through it).

The scene ends in a crazy series of explosions, and there’s a great tag, where the cops are honored for their bravery on the steps of City Hall; when asked if recovering a half-pound of marijuana was worth $12 million in property damage, the officers leave it to the crowd to answer with a resounding cheer.

The delivery of the $12 million damages line is the one moment in The Other Guys that lit up my brain’s humor center.  Keep in mind, I still had an hour-and-thirty-seven minutes of movie to sit through.

Danson and Highsmith receive a heroes’ welcome back at police headquarters, with plenty of eager cops hanging on their every self-satisfied word.  In the back of the room stand detectives Allen Gamble (Will Ferrell) and Terry Hoitz (Mark Wahlberg); they’re the screw-ups that nobody respects, and they take so much verbal abuse that I began to wonder if The Other Guys had originally been pitched as an NFL locker room sitcom.

If you’ve seen the previews for this film, you might think the story centers on the contrast between the macho hero cops and the counted-out losers who must step up and save the day.  And you’d be partially correct, kind of.

Danson and Highsmith are killed off by the twenty-minute mark in the most stunning display of a botched visual gag that I’ve seen this year.  While chasing a gang of jewel thieves who use a zip-line to escape from the top of a building down to street level, the super cops decide to simply jump for it and “aim for the bushes”.  We see them fall to their deaths.  I, for one, kept waiting for them to get back up and continue on, or for the film to rewind in one of those crazy, meta, “Now Here’s How it Really Happened” moments; but, no, they really die, really stupidly.

This leaves us with Gamble and Hoitz as the main focus of the picture, and they barely function as cops, let alone as a solid comedy duo.  Again, I have to go back to the element of surprise.  In classic comedy cop pairings, you have the straight-laced, by-the-book character who must deal with an exasperating loose-cannon/oddball partner whose eccentricities mask a keen, crime-solving mind.  The insurmountable problem here is that Will Ferrell plays a kind of straight-laced guy who randomly pops off into goofy/violent tantrums, and Wahlberg is a kinder, gentler version of the hot-headed maniac cop he played in The Departed.  With both characters constantly “on”, the audience is left to identify with two over-heated humor atoms bouncing off of each other for nearly two hours.

On top of that, these two suffer from the same story logic issues as Steve Carrell’s character in Dinner for Schmucks, which is that they are at times functionally retarded and at other times savvy crime fighters.  Had McKay and his co-screenwriter Chris Henchy decided to make these characters more realistic and draw the comedy from the situations they find themselves in, they might have been relatable and possibly even funny.  As it stands, Wahlberg tries way too hard and Ferrell doesn’t try hard enough; he’s been coasting on this tantrum-prone-child/savant shtick for far too long.

It’s a shame, too, because the supporting cast is fantastic, but they take their cues from the main actors and suffer comedically as a consequence.  Michael Keaton, for example, is great as Hoitz and Gamble’s police captain—in the few moments when he’s not over-playing every lame joke he’s forced to recite.  He’s got three “deals” in this movie.  The first is that he’s got a bisexual son to put through college; the second is that he’s moonlighting at Bed, Bath and Beyond to pay for it; the third is that he constantly quotes TLC lyrics but has no idea who TLC are.  One of these would have been okay to set up as a running joke for the movie, but each quirk is trotted out randomly over the course of the movie and then referenced and cross-referenced until, by film’s end, I just sat there counting the seconds until the next tired mention of “Waterfalls” or some sale going on at the store.  Keaton doesn’t create a character here; he’s an amalgam of three rejected Saturday Night Live skits.

The same can be said of Eva Mendes, who plays Detective Gamble’s wife, Sheila.  The joke is that Mendes is a very attractive woman, but her doofus husband thinks she’s very homely.  If you titter at that premise, I can assure you that the thirty-third reference to this stale notion will have you frowning instead.  The only entertaining part of Mendes even appearing in the picture, to me, came when I realized that the last time she appeared in a movie that also featured Samuel L. Jackson was in Frank Miller’s failed adaptation of Will Eisner’s The Spirit.  For the sake of cinema, someone needs to keep these two apart.

But I digress.

I haven’t mentioned the actual plot of The Other Guys yet because I cared about it exactly as much as the movie itself did—which is to say hardly at all.  Based on the truly bizarre Inconvenient-Truth-style end credits animation, Adam McKay would have you believe that The Other Guys is a biting critique of Bernie Madoff and his brand of Ponzi schemes.  But in execution, the film is about a slimy investor (Steve Coogan) who tries to screw the police department out of its pension funds in order to pay off bad debts; and the cops have to stop him.  The Other Guys is as much about the harsh realities of capitalism run amok as Inception is about the possibilities of dreams.

The movie is really about how little effort a major studio can put into a loud, dumb, clichéd movie and still turn a profit.  I doubt anyone working on this picture thought they were making a comedy for the ages—which, ideally, every funny, creative person in Hollywood should be attempting, every time out.  No, The Other Guys has “Strong Opening Box Office” scrawled across every focus-tested, brand-approved frame.  It’s a sad fact, but it’s no surprise.