The Other Guys is the best Will Ferrell movie since Anchorman.
Yes, this is dangerous praise. Ferrell, onetime comic heavyweight, isn’t lately known for selectivity. It’s a worthy concern. There’s a lot of dreck there–your Bewitcheds, your Semi-Pros, any number of slapped-out cameos, Wedding Crashers and the like. Cofounding FunnyOrDie.com was a worthwhile venture, but the long-term effect of yet another viral video depository is minimal.
It’s not as if Ferrell lost the gift. Marc Forster’s lovely Stranger Than Fiction remains his finest example of “real acting” to date. Working with Anchorman co-architect Adam McKay (also Ferrell’s partner at Funny Or Die), Ferrell ushered the sublime Eastbound & Down to HBO’s airwaves, including a two-episode onscreen arc that was his best straight comedy in years. Both post-Anchorman pictures with McKay had their moments, too: Talladega Nights, all yuk-it-up country and warmed-over Michael-Moore snark, and Step Brothers, a bizarro experimental beast of a big-budget comedy that’s funny and ghastly in equal parts.
There were no real gems, though, no peerless comedic peaks given to Facebook wall perpetuity. After Land Of The Lost (a film that has its defenders) flopped against a nine-digit budget, Ferrell developed his own personal backlash. Even longtime fans (More cowbell!) were annoyed with yet another soggy trailer, flush with check-cash mugging, advertising some garbage movie that might be worth a laugh on basic cable three years from now or so. Anchorman struck a magnificent chord, and it was more reasonable than not to suspect that Ferrell might not match it for the rest of his career. What wasn’t palatable was his seeming acceptance of this, and his apparent unwillingness to at least try to land a bankshot so weird and funny and lasting as The Legend Of Ron Burgundy.
He still hasn’t landed that shot. But The Other Guys is the first reason in some time to think that he just might–and, more importantly, that he wants to.
The primary catalyst is Mark Wahlberg. As Ferrell dials down his usual schtick, Wahlberg spindles up his well-worn intensity to delirious effect. He’s doing his Departed routine, but he’s clearly pleased at being able to do so, sans the limitations of a reasonable screenplay and Oscar consideration. Wahlberg’s Terry hallucinates, stalks his ex, and aligns his cop abilities with those of the majestic peacock. Also, yeah, he shot Derek Jeter. It’s an absurd role. Wahlberg is fantastic in it. He goes for broke whenever called to overflow. That unmaskable, blink-eyed vulnerability (so often the center of very, very, very bad movies, and, also, Boogie Nights) is finally being used to his advantage. And, with all that done, he’s also pulling out of Will Ferrell the latter’s funniest schtick in years.
A suffusion of wired-up Wahlberg and the usual Will Ferrell is not an easy sell, nor a good one, nor would it make much of a movie. Ferrell is not his usual self in The Other Guys, though, and therein does the movie lie. Sure, there are the usual asides into improv whimsy, but Ferrell, working with McKay, has spooled up the tackle here. He’s buttoned-up, weird, unmanly, antisocial. Wahlberg’s alpha-dog aggression lets Ferrell hang back as a kind of underdog, and the effect is rejuvenating. The “Allen” getup–Members Only khaki, crisp whites, tidy Windsors, astigmatic Fay Vincent face-hoggers–is far subtler than the Burgundy wig, zoot and mustache, but it’s no less effective. Ferrell spends the movie playing a sadsack, and the portrayal’s never in question. There’s the predictable reverie of Will Ferrell Outbursts in The Other Guys, but they’re earned. When things get strange, he’s just as often the guy commenting on the strangeness, rather than inciting it.
Actually, that’s one of the things that makes Other Guys work best–while Step Brothers took place in some strange world where all improvisational asides are natural, this movie takes care to have somebody, anybody, even Damon Wayans, Jr. (quite sharp, actually), acknowledge the ludicrous as it happens.
To put it a different way, a lesser movie would have ground Wahlberg’s “I’m a peacock” routine into the ground, presuming the randomness would carry the joke. Here, both Wayans and Michael Keaton take the line to task and make it work for its humor.
Oh yeah–Michael Keaton is in The Other Guys, as is Steve Coogan. Both steal scenes. Eva Mendes singlehandedly saves the film’s creakiest recurring gag. Ray Stevenson, late of Rome and Punisher: War Zone, lays down mean-Aussie sleaze with a real zeal for humor that nobody could’ve expected. Anne Heche delivers a cameo, but whatever. Rob Riggle scores a laugh or two, with his usual Daily Show demeanor; Samuel L. Jackson and The Rock, clearly having a blast, leave a lasting impression.
There’s a plot, as well, the baldest left-wing fiction yet from a pair that masterminded George W. Bush: You’re Welcome, America. Coogan’s villain is a Bernie Madoff drop-in; Ferrell’s character vomits in the office of the SEC. Even the closing credits are loaded, unspooling as they do over a nifty little spread of bailout-crimery Moore-charts, scored by Rage Against The Machine churning up “Maggie’s Farm.” To call Other Guys “political” would be lavish–it’s got politics in mind, certainly, but come on– but its heart is in a passionate place. This works to the movie’s advantage; Ferrell and McKay are smart enough to know that easy-Hollywood liberalism needs plenty of actual humor to sell. In that regard, they come to play.
Defending a comedy, attempting to describe why it’s funny, is generally a fool’s errand. Breaking down the dynamics of Ferrell’s “Lion/Shark” monologue would only lessen its hilarity (it’s long as is); trying to explain how amusing it is when Wahlberg loops every possible lead into the realm of “Colombian drug lords” is only going to fizzle the joke. The Other Guys is full of loony interludes that offer nothing by way of plot–in a flick that has plot aplenty–and, yes, so are most Will Ferrell movies, whether Adam McKay is there or not. It’s just that the interludes in Other Guys work. Much more often than they don’t.
Whether Wahlberg will turn this deft success into anything ongoing remains a question. The Other Guys saw release the same year as Wahlberg’s passion project The Fighter, and that film’s appeal has diverted his attention to further roles in the same vein, including a Fighter sequel. Same old Mark. Storing up all that humor for Entourage cameos, perhaps.
Ferrell, on the other hand, should consider Other Guys a career highlight, one that inspires him to bigger and fuller belly laughs in many movies to come. Plenty of comedians suffer a sell-by date, trickling down to vanity “dramedy” work before disappearing from sight or developing a sitcom. Ferrell has feinted toward this, guesting as a possible replacement for Steve Carell as Carell’s stint on The Office ended. Something about it seems unlikely, though. Whether its the responsibility that comes with a production company, the competition that comes with worthy competition, a comedian’s basic desire to lead the pack, some combination of the three or something else entire, Ferrell seems a man inspired. With plenty of laurels to rest upon, he reeled back and tried something new with the Other Guys. Doing so, he’s as funny as he’s ever been.
A lot of people loved Anchorman, and have wondered when a movie will come along that might amuse them half as much as that particular hilarious pleasure of a movie.
The Other Guys is at least half as funny as Anchorman. That’s taking the under.