August 11, 2010 - Rick Chatenever
So many laugh-out-loud moments fill the first two-thirds of “The Other Guys,” you forgive this new Will Ferrell comedy for not having a third act. Instead, it slips in a crash course about Wall Street greed under the closing credits, which doesn’t have much to do with the movie, but feels like a surprise bonus —a little tutorial to make up for whatever dumbing down may have occurred.
Turns out, there hasn’t been much. Thanks to Ferrell, co-star Mark Wahlberg and writer/director Adam McKay, “The Other Guys” is smarter than the typical cliché mix of shootouts and car crashes, otherwise known as a mismatched-buddy-cop comedy.
The shootouts and car crashes are all here, orchestrated scene for scene as homages to great urban-action directors. The movie begins with Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson as ultracool detectives Highsmith and Danson, embodying every superhero stereotype in the NYPD playbook.
Unfortunately for Highsmith and Danson, under the cool shades, basic black wardrobes, tattoos and earrings, they have something other than brains for brains. This results —spoiler alert! —in a couple of accident-scene body outlines on the sidewalk, almost before the opening credits end.
As pudgy milquetoast detective Adam Gambell, Ferrell favors sitting at his desk doing paperwork to anything more testosterone-intensive. Wahlberg is his hot-headed but judgment-impaired partner Terry Holtz. Holtz —along with everyone else in the precinct —can’t stand Gambell as he sits at his computer, humming as he types away.
It’s this element of incredulity that gives “The Other Guys” a wiggy, out-of-left-field eccentricity. Never knowing what’s coming next breathes new life into its tired old good-cop, bad-cop formula.
(The good-cop, bad-cop routine is, in fact, the launch pad for one sequence. In another, Ferrell points out that actual explosions and fireballs are nothing like what happens in the movies, as he lies on the ground writhing and whining.)
Ferrell is a master of this sort of earnest goofiness. He’s the kind of guy who’s oblivious to how drop-dead sexy his wife (Eva Mendez) is, but will sing a ridiculous, tear-jerking Irish ballad at the neighborhood pub with absolute sincerity.
Straight man Wahlberg reveals new dimensions of his own talent. His dead-on deadpan reaction shots, not to mention his own slightly bent issues are lost in the shadow of Ferrell’s genius —but are a key element in the movie’s giddy, lovable rhythm.
Their offbeat pacing and chemistry go a long way toward camouflaging the fact that the case they’re working on is as baffling to the audience as it is to them. We know it has something to do with a sleazy British billionaire (Steve Coogan) doing the Wall Street shuffle. Wait a minute —could that be what those graphs under the closing credits are all about?
And does that mean … the real joke … is on us?
No matter. Following Steve Carell in “Dinner for Schmucks” last week, Ferrell and company’s bravura work here signal new energy on the comedy front.
Cultivated on television, with guys like Lorne Michaels and Judd Apatow guiding the baby steps of the folks who have become today’s A-listers, these new film comedies are notable for their smarts, their whimsy … and their heart.
Hormonal high-school dorks and mean-spirited sadists no longer have a stranglehold at the comedy box office. They’re getting a run for the money from a whole lot of brilliant artists willing to get deeply in touch with their inner demons, insecurities and neuroses … as well as their better selves.
The movies may not be great — hey, they’re comedies — but they do provide a sort of fun that you don’t feel guilty about later.
Unfortunately, this vein of comic gold doesn’t quite stretch to “Cyrus.” This bent romance concocts an offbeat triangle between Will Ferrell’s favorite co-star, John C. Reilly; the always wonderful Marisa Tomei; and Jonah Hill as her live-at-home man-child son, Cyrus. Scene-stealing Catherine Keener co-stars as Reilly’s ex-wife, who was smart enough to leave him a long time ago.
Sigmund Freud feels like a silent writing partner with co-director-brothers Mark and Jay Duplass. Hill’s Cyrus — whose physique is reminiscent of a Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade balloon —is more creepy than funny as the passive-aggressive protector of home, hearth and mommy.
While Cyrus’ motivations are readily apparent —and fixable with years of therapy —what’s harder to fathom is what the effervescent Tomei sees in Reilly’s sad-sack suitor. His self-doubts and bleak outlook feel contagious —hardly a nice trick to play on audiences that have come to the movies for a few laughs.
• Contact Rick Chatenever at email@example.com.