“The Other Guys,” the latest collaboration between director Adam McKay and star Will Ferrell, is a film about excess. It juxtaposes the excesses of our unregulated financial sector with the excesses of the buddy cop movie, two uniquely American pursuits that collide in one surprisingly clever story by screenwriters McKay and Chris Henchy. There’s a third kind of excess at play as well, and that’s in McKay, Henchy, and Ferrell’s comedy, which is at its best at the absurd extremes of human behavior and emotion.
Ferrell’s always good, but he’s at his best with McKay, with whom he created Ron Burgundy in “Anchorman” and Brennan Huff in “Step Brothers.” To that growing stable of memorably eccentric characters we now add Allen Gamble, a pencil-pushing forensic scientist with the NYPD. He and his partner, disgraced detective Terry Hoitz (Mark Wahlberg), are “the other guys” on the force, desk jockeys who do the paperwork for hot shot supercops Danson (Dwayne Johnson) and Highsmith (Samuel L. Jackson). But when the straight-laced Gamble follows the paper trail from a minor scaffolding permit violation into a major case involving a Bernie Madoff-esque Ponzi schemer (Steve Coogan), the other guys get their chance to be superstars.
It’s a classic buddy cop setup, but McKay and Ferrell don’t simply make fun of the conventions of a tired genre, though there’s certainly room for that as well (Gamble and Hoitz’s disastrous stab at good cop-bad cop ranks as a particularly funny example). As we’ve come to expect from McKay, there are diversions into deliciously weird territory, including spontaneous musical numbers, Bed, Bath & Beyond staff meetings, and hobo orgies. Comedy is subjective, of course, but in my opinion the gags that McKay and Ferrell spin out of this material rank amongst the finest of their career. The one involving Danson and Highsmith “aiming for the bushes” had me in tears.
Amongst modern directors, McKay is second only to Quentin Tarantino in recognizing and then utilizing undiscovered or forgotten acting talents. Paul Rudd, John C. Reilly, Michael Clarke Duncan, Richard Jenkins, Adam Scott, and Kathryn Hahn are just a few of the actors who he’s given career-defining or redefining roles to. He obviously saw the potential for chemistry between Ferrell and Wahlberg, an actor known more for drama and action films (who, truth be told, was funnier in David O. Russell’s “I Heart Huckabee’s” than he is here). But he also showcases Michael Keaton in his best part in years as the other guys’ Captain, who has a habit of quoting TLC song lyrics without realizing it, and hits a home run with Eva Mendes as Gamble’s long-suffering wife, whose striking beauty is lost on her husband but not on his partner.
The film’s hamstrung slightly by its PG-13 rating — that scene with Ferrell, Mendes, and her mother is going to be a lot funnier on the inevitable unrated Blu-ray — and there’s no denying McKay is a much better director of comedy than of action. Still, McKay’s stylistic deficiencies inform the “The Other Guys”‘ comedic point-of-view. This movie is a critique of excess; if Danson and Highsmith’s exploits look a little shoddy, that’s sort of the point.
Their destructive behavior in the name of law enforcement is meant to look shallow and empty and it places them squarely in the tradition of McKay and Ferrell egomaniacal blowhards like Ron Burgundy. Typically, the McKay/Ferrell hero’s misplaced self-confidence leads to a fall that can only be redeemed through an attitude readjustment away from obnoxious behavior. Here, McKay shifts from the guys to the other guys, though Gamble’s restrained demeanor is ultimately revealed to have its own ties to excessive machismo, those of his shady past working as — well, it’s best not to spoil it.
To solve the case Gamble has to learn to harness his own inner Danson and Highsmith without letting it run wild. Thankfully, McKay exercises no such sense of restraint with his comedy. Even if “The Other Guys” doesn’t wind up alongside “Anchorman” in the funny movie hall-of-fame — and after just one viewing, it’s too early to tell — it’s still the funniest movie of the summer by a mile. Right now, there are no other guys in movie comedy. McKay and Ferrell aim for the bushes and hit their target.