Goodness knows Will Ferrell has diluted his brand by starring in more movies than he should have, causing all but his most diehard fans to grow weary. But it’s important to note that when he sticks with Adam McKay, the results are solid. McKay was a “Saturday Night Live” writer who worked closely with Ferrell in those days, and who directed and co-wrote “Anchorman,” “Talladega Nights,” and “Step-Brothers.” It was McKay who partnered with Ferrell to launch the now-indispensable Funny or Die website. Now they’re together again for “The Other Guys,” and this could be Ferrell’s best mainstream showing since “Anchorman.”
It’s also — not to add insult to injury — what Kevin Smith’s “Cop Out” might have been if Kevin Smith’s “Cop Out” had contained humor.
Taking a cue from 1980s buddy-cop movies, “The Other Guys” is about the desk-jockey cops in those films who do the paperwork while the hotshots are out shooting bad guys and wrecking cars. In this case, the NYPD’s rock-star detectives are Danson and Highsmith, played by Dwayne Johnson and Samuel L. Jackson (a bit of perfect casting). Danson and Highsmith crack wise while pursuing drug dealers in an absurdly violent car chase, then are celebrated at a press conference on the steps of city hall. You get the feeling this is pretty common for them.
Back at the station, the back-up hotshots are Martin (Rob Riggle) and Fosse (Damon Wayans Jr.), already working on their trash-talking and property-destroying skills. And after them, you get to Allen Gamble (Ferrell) and Terry Hoitz (Mark Wahlberg). Hoitz was assigned to desk duty after accidentally shooting someone. He is bitter and frustrated and stir-crazy. Gamble, on the other hand, is a cheerful and soft-spoken forensic accountant who wants his days to contain nothing more exciting than long division. The last thing he wants is to leave his desk and go out on a case. Hoitz hates him.
When Danson and Highsmith are incapacitated, Martin and Fosse make a bid to replace them as the department alpha males by trying to solve a jewelry-store robbery. But Gamble and Hoitz are on the case, too, at Hoitz’s insistence. Also, Gamble has noticed that a high-powered financial investor, Ershon (Steve Coogan), has neglected to file the proper documents for construction-related scaffolding at some of the buildings he owns. That’s the kind of crime Gamble loves, and he takes it seriously.
The Ferrell/McKay films are rather notorious for not having much in the way of clearly defined stories, preferring instead to set up a basic scenario and let Ferrell and his co-stars goof around. In the other three films, the scenario was that Ferrell played a defiant and belligerently stupid man-child whose coddled existence was threatened by an interloper (a lady reporter, a French NASCAR driver, and a step-brother, respectively). This time, there’s an actual story line, mimicking the formula of the “Lethal Weapon”/”48 Hrs.” genre of action comedies, and Ferrell is playing an eager, polite, sensible man — more Buddy the elf than Ron Burgundy. It’s Hoitz, the Mark Wahlberg character, who’s angry and petulant, and cheers to Wahlberg for playing a role that spoofs his public persona.
Ferrell and Wahlberg are funny together, with a natural rapport that plays up Hoitz’s dislike for Gamble without getting too mean; above all, this is a light, silly film. Michael Keaton, in an increasingly rare funny live-action performance, shines as the guys’ blustery captain, fitting right in with the Ferrell/McKay sensibility. Eva Mendes also scores as Gamble’s impossibly hot wife, part of a running joke about gorgeous women finding Gamble irresistible, much to Hoitz’s amazement. In general, the film’s style of humor, which careens from absurdism to slapstick to satire, pushes all my buttons. It makes me laugh. A lot.
McKay, who wrote the screenplay with Funny or Die producer Chris Henchy, shows more directorial ambition here than he has before, ably handling action scenes, shoot-outs, and other genre necessities. But there’s a problem, and it’s the same problem I noticed with another ’80s-inspired action comedy released exactly two years ago: “Pineapple Express.” In both cases, the fact that there’s a real story line being laid out means the film becomes less funny as it has to pay more and more attention to it. “The Other Guys” is boisterously, magnificently, even brilliantly funny in its first hour; after that it’s in the good-but-not-great category, weighed down by the requirements of the plot.
Weirdly, the movie takes a curiously strident tone in, of all places, the closing credits, when the financial malfeasance of the movie’s plot extends into a Michael Moore-ish list of facts and figures regarding the bank bailouts, CEO salaries, and so forth. It’s interesting and (as far as I know) accurate, but it’s a baffling way to end an airy, mischievous comedy. You want a film like this to end on a lighter note — so stay until the credits are over for a random deleted scene that involves Mark Wahlberg telling a joke and Will Ferrell trying to speak Chinese. Now we’re talkin’.
B (1 hr., 47 min.; )