Silver Screen: The Other Guys ***

Silver Screen: The Other Guys ***
Bryan Miller

Speaking of frivolous movies that take strange, pseudo-serious political detours: Director and cowriter Adam McKay infuses a surprising tirade against unfettered capitalism in the goofy buddy cop flick The Other Guys.

Okay, maybe it’s not entirely surprising. McKay is a fairly outspoken leftist who produced Will Ferrell’s You’re Welcome America: A Final Night with George W. Bush and has been behind some biting web videos, most notably Prop 8: The Musical. But The Other Guys would seem to be an odd venue for a call to arms, even a lighthearted one.

Surprisingly, though, the ideological sentiment isn’t shoehorned into the movie, nor does it dampen the humor. The bulk of it is confined to a statistics-crammed closing-credits sequence, which the apathetic and free-market zombies alike can skip without incident, but echoes of the idea that the biggest crooks are moneymen rather than petty thieves and drug runners of the illegal variety filter into the movie’s plot, such as it is.

Steve Coogan plays the capitalist heavy whose Madoffian Ponzi scheme is crumbling. His fraud is going to smear egg on the face of a corporate CEO (Anne Heche) whose stock will wither if word of the losses leaks. To remedy this, she intimidates Coogan into finding another mark who can take the fall for losing $32 million.

The only thing standing between Coogan and his scheming: supercops Highsmith and Danson (Samuel Jackson and Dwayne “Is That Fresh Coriander I Smell in What the Rock Is Cooking?” Johnson). Except Highsmith and Danson are no help at all, having been dispatched in a baffling and hilarious on-the-job accident.

The next best thing is a couple of other guys, desk-bound hothead Terry Hoitz (Mark Wahlberg) and paper-pushing ninny Allen Gamble (Ferrell). The unlikely, uncooperative duo inadvertently get wind of the caper when Allen pursues a seemingly innocuous case about zoning permits, but soon the two are deep into the case. Unfortunately, they’re eccentric screwups, but through a series of interconnected comedy sketches and general clowning around they learn to work together and fight crime.

The setup is drab enough, and sounds eerily reminiscent of this year’s boring, similar-sounding Kevin Smith dud Cop Out. But The Other Guys turns out to be one of Ferrell’s funniest movies in years, perhaps his best work since the McKay collaboration Anchorman.

Gamble certainly fits the Ferrell mode, an earnest, quiet guy prone to overconfidence, clueless enthusiasm, and sudden fits of shouting. However, he’s not another man-child made good. The Other Guys’ best running gags stem from meek Gamble’s crazy past; turns out he’s a badass reformed by his beautiful doctor wife (Eva Mendes), and when flashes of his past persona as a college pimp named Gator surface, he loses the cool you never knew he had. It’s a funny premise that Ferrell and McKay milk for all it’s worth without ever overplaying it.

Wahlberg, unfortunately, isn’t much help, though it’s hard to tell if he’s only suited for straight-man duty or if the character is just underwritten (both, probably). Ferrell does get some help, though, both from the wonderfully sleazy Coogan and Michael Keaton as an atypically soft-spoken police captain.

Unlike Cop Out, which was all in-jokes and meta-references, The Other Guys keeps the genre-riffing to a minimum and mostly steers clear of straight parody. It’s a real comedy with its own vibe and its own jokes, just structured around a familiar premise. And it works.

As for the politics... it seems unlikely that anyone is going to take much out of the movie, no matter how hard they laugh. But McKay deserves points for trying, and for his sly suggestions that all the bombast and theatrics of seeming badasses like Highsmith and Danson are just a lot of sound and fury, and that the real work involves research, patience, and focus on real problems. (In that way, The Other Guys is weirdly like a comedic spin on the themes of The Wire.)

But whatever. Mostly it’s about Ferrell lapsing into pimp-speak, or intimidating Coogan with lines like “I will make you eat a plate of human shit!” It’s dumb comedy, done smart.