For the record, I enjoyed Anchorman. I was lukewarm on Talladega Nights. I skipped Step Brothers. But now that I have seen Adam McKay’s disastrous cop-buddy comedy, The Other Guys, I think that I can safely conclude that McKay is turning into a gutless fauxteur more on the level of Dennis Dugan rather than Judd Apatow. He’s a man who might improve his floundering artistry, were he to live by a more literal mantra of the comedy website he co-created with Will Ferrell. Had there been some creep screaming “Funny or Die!” into McKay’s tinnital ears every five minutes or a psychotic aiming a gun at McKay and his co-writer Chris Henchy as they were banging out their flaccid script, it is quite possible that The Other Guys would not be such a stunning sack of shit. At least I’d like to think so. And I’d like very much to believe that McKay is more than Anchorman. I am, after all, an optimist at heart. But the truth here is that McKay has turned out a film that is worse than Kevin Smith’s Cop Out, a movie that is not even worth folding your laundry by. That alone takes a stunning paucity of talent. McKay’s mind is a Costco storehouse of discount humor. He’ll point his mass audience in the right direction. But when it comes time to make a purchasing decision, you’re limited to the stock at hand. You’re then forced to stand in line a very long time for only a few saved bucks. And your only real consolation is the cheap hot dog on the way out.
The cheap hot dog in question is a series of helpful infographics playing during the closing credits, featuring such left-leaning stats as the plummeting value of an average American’s 401K account, the uptick in the average executive’s salary, and the growing disparity between the rich and the poor. There was a part of me very tempted to give McKay more of a pass for having the audacity to pull an unexpected progressive parlor trick at the end of a multiplex film. But then I remembered that I had just endured a particularly unfunny film, sitting next to two annoying ringers who laughed at every dud, that had contained abundant misogynist jokes and several strange potshots at the eco-friendly Toyota Prius. And if McKay wanted to make a statement about corporate greed within a mainstream comedy, then why didn’t he have the balls to do it during the preceding 90 minutes?
I’ve called McKay “gutless.” I’ve called him a “fauxteur.” Let me explain. McKay is gutless because he features a potentially funny scene in which two cops address an elementary school classroom, pointing out that African-Americans and Hispanics are more likely to get involved in crime. These are, of course, racially insensitive remarks. The camera cuts to a reaction shot. And the true horror of what these two cops are saying might have been funny and disturbing if the kids had been composed entirely of African-Americans and Hispanics, an ironic twist that would have improved the joke. But in the reaction shot, it’s a largely Caucasian crowd. McKay is a fauxteur because he doesn’t understand that repeating a gag several times over a movie doesn’t necessarily make it funny — particularly if it’s a tired cultural reference. Case in point: Will Ferrell’s character, Allen Gamble, likes to play Little River Band to rev up his masculinity. It’s somewhat funny to hear “Reminiscing” once, groan-inducing the second time, and nauseating the third time. (Also, if Gamble really was into “River Band,” would his taste not extend into tunes beyond the popular hits?)
Just as McKay disguised his Talladega inadequacies by casting Sacha Baron Cohen as a very funny Frenchman, he resorts to casting a British comedic legend (Steve Coogan this time) to quickly paint over the cracks in the wall. Alas, the astute McKay viewer will recognize quite rapidly just how much the man is slumming it. The criminally underused Michael Keaton fares better than Coogan and even finds some ways of improving the material with his performance, offering a spontaneous wink just after a so-so line to get a big laugh. But these living legends are merely the supporting players.
So it falls upon Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell to anchor the comedy. Both fail spectacularly. In Wahlberg’s case, it’s not his fault. He previously demonstrated that he had comic timing as a stiff sergeant in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed. But in The Other Guys, McKay has directed him to be a one-note caricature of that role. And his presence becomes needlessly tedious. Wahlberg’s character, Terry Hoitz, is stuck to his desk because he accidentally shot Derek Jeter. (Because of this, he is partnered with Ferrell’s Gamble, which I’ll get to in a mite.) Hoitz has an estranged relationship with a ballet teacher and even shows up at her studio to demonstrate his dance moves. But Wahlberg just doesn’t have the material to sell his character. He rants and complains about his failure to get some action on the streets, about Gamble’s reluctance to take a radio call. He makes goo goo eyes at Gamble’s wife. But none of these qualities offer us enough to care.
As for Ferrell, one must now ask the perfectly reasonable question of whether the man is still funny. I’m becoming increasingly convinced that he’s blown his wad and will end up starring in lackluster family films like Eddie Murphy: a withered husk of whatever jones he had in the first place. Allen Gamble falls into the same one-note Ferrell archetype. Suburban middle-aged dork has a crazy past and a wild streak that comes out from time to time. Which we saw before with Old School‘s Frank Ricard and on countless Saturday Night Live sketches more than a decade ago. In this case, before he became a police accountant, Gamble was a pimp in college. Aside from the fact that a police background check would make it utterly impossible for Gamble to be employed, the flashback that reveals this backstory relies not so much on wit or character detail, but on Ferrell increasingly resembling a pimp. Chains appear around his neck. He starts to talk in ghetto cliches. In short, it’s the kind of humor one can easily discover in a high school drama class, not what one expects of comedy professionals.
Hoitz and Gamble are paired together, but they never get any action on the streets (thus motivating the movie’s raison d’etre: “comedy” fused with noisy car chases and constant shoe pilfering). These guys are NYPD office drones. Gamble sifts through paperwork and finds the buildings erected without construction permits. And all this is, in Hoitz’s eyes, rather boring. The movie could have had a stronger premise if it had played this idea up. What if Hoitz and Gamble, these ostensible bureaucratic stiffs, actually uncovered greater danger than the assaults, robbery, and mayhem on the streets? Certainly, the end credits suggest that this angle may have been a stronger priority in an earlier screenplay draft. But had the film maintained this emphasis — similar to Ron Burgundy’s sexist values being challenged by the 21st century or the clash between Ricky Bobby and Jean Girard in Talladega Nights — it would have played more to McKay’s comedic strengths: namely, finding the comedy within ideological conflict.
But McKay and company appear more interested in wallowing in misogyny. Gamble is ridiculed for having a man purse. “I feel like we’re literally driving around in a vagina,” says Hoitz upon driving in Gamble’s Prius. Gamble gives Hoitz a gift: an FBI mug that spells out the acronym FEMALE BODY INSPECTOR. But McKay reveals just how much of a women-hating frat boy he is by having Eva Mendes show up as Gamble’s wife. The joke here is that Will Ferrell can’t possibly have married such an attractive woman. But despite Mendes’s character being a resident doctor, we never really see Dr. Sheila Gamble at work. We see her constantly cooking, constantly encouraging, and being told by Ferrell that her dinner tastes like dog testicles. And what’s the draw here in the relationship? That the Gambles have wild sex. It apparently hasn’t occurred to McKay that Mendes’s character may possess a professional life that supersedes such throwback I Love Lucy duties. Contrary to McKay’s fantasies, women are interested in more things than fucking and supporting their men. So it turns out that Ron Burgundy’s misogyny isn’t terribly removed frmo McKay’s. And if that isn’t enough, McKay thinks it’s funny that the homeless here like to engage in circlejerks (“It’s called a soup kitchen!”) within any abandoned Prius.
Much like a loutish neighbor who believes that skimming an issue of The Economist makes him a responsible citizen, The Other Guys would like its audience to think that its a liberal bomb trapped within a mainstream comedy. Hardly. The comedy here is a bit like watching a white supremacist group attempt to make sense of Brown vs. Board of Education. You really hope that the participants will become enlightened, but the atavism won’t go away.