The Other Guys" takes stuff that, as a rule, isn't particularly funny, and tries to make you laugh. More often than not, it succeeds.
A crooked financial adviser as the villain? Not funny. Not these days. Except as played by Steve Coogan, who brings a squirrelly charm to the role of David Ershon, a Bernie Madoff-style bad guy whose financial chicanery is the focus of the investigation in this comedy about a pair of wildly mismatched cops, played by Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell.
Ferrell, unsurprisingly, does most of the heavy lifting. As Allen Gamble, an embarrassingly nebbishy police accountant, he's the geeky yin to Wahlberg's hyper-macho yang, represented by Terry Hoitz, a disgraced former hot shot who has been exiled to desk duty after an accidental shooting. Again, not funny. Except that it is, especially the identity of the victim.
Gamble, in "The Other Guys," is Hoitz's punishment. And we're the ones who reap the rewards.
Most of the comedy consists of Gamble doing uncool things: firing his gun inside the station, listening to the Little River Band, driving a Prius. (Yes, I know that's cool in some precincts. Not here.) As his reluctant partner, Wahlberg proves himself a master of the slow burn. He's our glowering stand-in, the angry straight man to Ferrell's earnest, unhinged idiot.
Why is the mere sight of Ferrell singing morbidly depressing folk songs in a bar funny? If you have to ask, you must never have seen "Old School," "Elf" or "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy" (or any of the actor's brilliantly lowbrow previous work). Almost anything Ferrell does is funny, even if it's stupid.
Especially if it's stupid.
And there's plenty of stupid in "The Other Guys." That's because, more than anything, what it's making fun of is dumb cop-movie cliches. The title itself presents Gamble and Hoitz as alternatives to even bigger jerks, played by Dwayne Johnson and Samuel L. Jackson. As supercops Danson and Highsmith, they're what Gamble and Hoitz aspire to become, even after the film dispenses with the flashy, high-wire duo in a gloriously ignominious -- and hilarious -- end.
Their demise, which comes early in the film, opens up an opportunity for Gamble and Hoitz, who spend the rest of the film competing with two other ambitious officers (Rob Riggle and Damon Wayans Jr.) to fill the void in the limelight left by Danson and Highsmith. As Gamble and Hoitz figure it, if they can just solve one big case, they'll be the new stars.
When the film works best, it does so by subverting our own expectations of the detective genre. After an exploding fireball throws Gamble and Hoitz to the ground, they don't jump up, unscathed, and brush themselves off. Far from it. "I just want to go somewhere and breast-feed," whines Gamble, writhing in pain.
As the hard-boiled police captain Mauch, Michael Keaton has the stereotype down -- except he keeps quoting TLC lyrics, and moonlights as the manager of a Bed Bath & Beyond.
If the movie doesn't work so well, it's because it occasionally stops tweaking convention, and starts following it. At times -- especially during the film's frequent car chases and shootouts -- "The Other Guys" looks and sounds too much like one of the movies it's mocking. And certain running gags are run into the ground. Gamble, for example, is an incongruous (and clueless) sex symbol. Although his wife (Eva Mendes) is, in Hoitz's words, "scalding hot," Gamble appears unaware of this fact, let alone that every other woman in the film also seems to want him. It's crazy -- he's Will Ferrell, for God's sake! -- not to mention crazy funny. But the joke wears thin after the umpteenth iteration. Other dumb bits that outlast their welcome: The bad guys keep taking Gamble's and Hoitz's shoes, and Mauch confiscates Gamble's gun, making him carry a wooden facsimile.
For the most part, "The Other Guys" is seriously silly stuff, in the best sense. If you sit through the closing credits, you'll not only see an amusing outtake, but a series of on-screen graphics that detail how a Ponzi scheme works, as well as other disheartening statistics about the recent financial meltdown. It's a bizarre coda to a comedy, but maybe that's the point.
Instead of riling us up about runaway executive compensation and TARP funds, it only serves as a reminder of how badly we could all use a good laugh nowadays.