Two adrenaline junky celebrity cops dive 20 stories to their senseless deaths for no apparent reason other than the crazed bliss of suicidal recklessness. A punch-up breaks out at a funeral and everyone whispers while beating each other so as not to disturb the grieving guests. A guy gets loaded and eats a priest’s arm. A chopper’s taken out by an onslaught of golf balls. An NYPD captain moonlights at a bed and bath store to put his bisexual son through DJ school. Steve Coogan bribes investigators with tickets to Jersey Boys. These are some of the movie’s highlights, though they could just as easily be enjoyed as stand-alone slapstick shorts. Their being part of a feature film constitutes nothing beyond a convenient framing device.
It must be some kind of genuine praise when I confess that I dunno what to make of cop buddy gutbuster The Other Guys. When we talk about the necessity of approaching movies on their own terms rather than as variations on familiar templates, we typically do so with regards to relatively obscure or “difficult” movies in danger of vanishing into the art house fog, but this same re-negotiating of expectations can be applied to comedies. The Other Guys is a miserable failure at lots of things we typically consider essential. The narrative, for one, which seems to want to be some sort of satire at times, isn’t merely stupid, it’s also inconsistent, incoherent, and flamboyantly lumpy. But throughout film history we can find numerous comedies that work, sometimes beautifully, as nothing more than tautological accumulations of gag-assaults, knowingly absurd situations that are funniest when we realize they’re going absolutely nowhere—the Marx Brothers were at their best when using this tack. Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell get into a childish yet tense verbal sparring match based entirely around how animal versions of themselves could consume each other in a nonsensical food chain. The conversation is so silly, but they just keep at it until it seems utterly exhausted, and keep at it further still, until it’s not just funny all over again but actually funnier than it was to begin with. Like Van Morrison repeating a single lyric into blissful abstraction, these guys beat funny ideas to death so as to raise them from the dead.
The Other Guys was co-scripted and directed by Adam McKay, who helmed the earlier Will Ferrell loser comedies Anchorman, Talladega Nights and Step Brothers. The approach here is similar if perhaps more insane. This is busy, spastic, anxiogenic comedy, so the narrative isn’t really supposed to hold together. Wahlberg, as a humiliated high-strung peacock champing at the bit for some super-cop glory, and Ferrell, as the partner content to stay at his desk and quietly build cases against developers for neglecting to apply for scaffolding permits, do brilliantly funny things with the uneven material by making it all so deadly serious. Though its less recognized than Ferrell’s, Wahlberg has always had a very special gift for comedy—just go back to certain bits of Boogie Nights, the singing especially, or even the way he simply parks a bike in I Heart Huckabees—because he heroically hurls himself headlong into playing stakes rather than jokes. I was in tears at times. But for every well-drawn character there's one that just gets more half-assed with every new appearance—such as Eva Mendes as Ferrell's sketch of a spouse. For every inspired scene there’s another that falls drearily flat. Holding it all together is little more than our patient waiting for the next, hopefully better scene. Still, I’ll take this over a tediously over-manicured, story-edited-into-a-coma comedy any day of the week.