Wow, Adam McKay– what’s gotten you so worked up?
Watching The Other Guys, the answer isn’t particularly secret and nor does McKay seem terribly interested in trying to disguise it. For a bonkers, slapstick, off-the-wall comedy featuring Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg swapping back and forth between being the straight man and acting like lunatics, there’s a deep resentment and bristling contempt toward the scheming and conniving financiers and fat-cat CEOs on Wall Street and the monetary dilemma they’ve put the US in through their avarice. If there’s any grace given to the film’s targets, it’s that McKay– one of the best comedy directors of the day– has packed so much laughter into his story that in the midst of the audience guffawing, they might miss out on the social commentary.
The Other Guys is about, well, the other guys. Ferrell and Wahlberg play two detectives overshadowed by the rest of their fellow officers– who in turn are overshadowed themselves by hot-shot cops Highsmith (Samuel L. Jackson) and Danson (Dwayne Johnson, a man so absurdly buff that a pistol in his hands appears as a ludicrous prop). Highsmith and Danson come from the super cop mold that Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz lampooned back in 2007, reckless and almost carefree in their blatant disregard for the safety of the public; the film doesn’t take its time in removing them from the picture, and once they’re gone it’s a free-for-all to take their place as the top cops in the precinct.
But that’s not what The Other Guys is really about. Instead of pursuing the prototypical bad guys popular in the genre, Ferrell’s unnervingly oblivious and (seemingly) straight-laced detective is dead-set on investigating the shadiness of one David Ershon (Steve Coogan), a corporate magnate with plenty of skeletons in his closet. While the film’s title clearly refers back to Ferrell and Wahlberg, Coogan’s slimy and oily businessman is so similarly unorthodox as the villain that he, too, could be counted among the “other guys”. Refreshingly, The Other Guys concerns itself with the kind of crime that so many of us are (or were, perhaps) so content to overlook.
Front and center, though, is the comedy. It’s easy to make the case that the entire movie exists only in service of the jokes rather than the reverse, which come at an unrelenting clip at times and even in the slower moments never truly let up. The times when The Other Guys threatens to abandon humor for gravity, it fools you. Ferrell begins to recount to Wahlberg the reason that he’s so straight-laced and explain why he’s so adamant about the virtues of working behind a desk rather than in the street; if you haven’t seen the movie already I’ll leave it to you to learn the secrets of his past yourself, but just as soon as the movie promises to go soulful on us it flips everything around with the most ridiculous back story that one could conceive of for a pencil-pushing, by-the-book goodie two-shoes.
Ferrell and Wahlberg are absolutely magnificent here. I don’t know that I would ever have suggested pairing them, but the decision is absolutely inspired to the point where they should go out of their way to work with each other frequently. Every buddy comedy establishes early on the straight-man/funny-man dynamic, and tend to keep to those established roles for the rest of the film. The Other Guys, frankly, can’t be bothered with keeping the record straight. Ferrell, for so much of the film, plays his character completely deadpan and restrains the inner maniac we all know lurks within him; sure, he’s funny, but he’s only funny thanks to his blissful ignorance. When Ferrell dictates how a tuna might develop a taste for the flesh of lions (yes, this conversation actually takes place), he means every word of it. There isn’t a trace of irony in his voice– this man believes what he’s saying, and we’re the beneficiaries of his incognizance.
But he’s only the straight man for so long. Eventually, Ferrell lets loose and it’s Wahlberg’s turn to reel it in; the dynamic changes. And then it changes again. And again. Eventually the concept of that very dynamic completely evaporates and the duo becomes an equal opportunity straight/funny-man team.
Wahlberg unloads right off the bat. Like McKay, there’s genuine anger here; it could, of course, just be my imagination, but after four years of efforts that haven’t produced a real hit for the actor, he probably has something to be frustrated over. Maybe Wahlberg sees a sort of kinship in his character, an over-eager cop forced behind a desk after accidentally shooting a certain Yankees star during the playoffs; they’ve both been waiting for too long for a chance to real show their stuff. It’s easy to see how he might relate to the role, but I’m merely speculating here instead of focusing on what’s tangible. Whatever the case may be Wahlberg seizes the opportunity and reminds us just how funny he can be in the right role, and the resulting combination of he and Ferrell ends up being incendiary in its raw comedy.
McKay doesn’t waste a whole lot of time setting up the plot so that he can start injecting comedic beats into the story, and while I’d argue that his foremost interest here lies in making his audiences laugh there’s clearly a lot more on his mind in The Other Guys than Ferrell and Wahlberg going bonkers. If McKay isn’t an overtly political filmmaker, then maybe his politics just naturally managed to slip into his film on their own, because The Other Guys is clearly an of-the-moment picture that’s at least unconsciously driven by McKay’s personal beliefs and ideologies. In truth, that just makes the punchlines and the plot that much more satisfying; we’re not just laughing at cleverly built jokes, we’re expressing our own derision towards the events and the types of people that the story lampoons and skewers. Laughter is a release, I’m told. This is especially true of movies like this one that have a purpose and a bent behind their absurdist comedy.