“The Other Guys” is a fireball of hilarity detonated by two writers who seem to be having as much fun as its weird heroes. It begs the question: why can’t the funniest movie of the year be its best as well? Just about the only big gripe about it is the slacking off of the laughs in the second half, but by then the audience have had more fun moments than five comedies combined. Besides, the resolution of the plot fulfills the movie’s loftier reason to be: to send a poison letter to Wall Street and its regulators. Both halves are good honest entertainment, so why grumble?
One surprise this season is that the movie that could have shed light on the forces that drive America’s financial scandals, “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” barely scratches their surface, while a goofy comedy like “The Other Guys” exposes them with startling clarity — schemes to rob common investors and public funds, collusions to cover up mind-boggling losses and an obscene buddy system that binds the regulators and the regulated. This movie pits powerful cliques of buddies against the underdog buddies, two losers in the police force.
The bond between Detectives Allen Gamble and Terry Hoitz (Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg) is not so much a case of opposites attract or complimentary opposites as a bonding of meatheads similarly scarred by their pasts. Their characters are drawn tongue-in-cheek.
Gamble, the more finely done, “audited” his parents when he was 11 and found them wanting. He became a pimp in higher school, sporting gold teeth and rapper chic, and later switched to the humble job of a detective accountant, this time enduring colleagues’ taunts of “paper bitch.” As a buddy, he’s fiercely loyal and thoughtful. As a husband, he can be so unappreciative and verbally abusive that his wife should have dumped him a long time ago. But as a sex object, he is a runaway hit, driving hot women into a state at the sight of him into fantasies of three-day sex marathons.
Hoitz doesn’t get this at all. He has had less success in his love life despite being the movie-star type, or a model type who can do billboards for Calvin Klein briefs at any age. We learn that as a young man, he learned to dance the ballet and play the harp as an act of “sarcasm” toward artsy sissies whom he wanted to beat up. Later in life, he’s doing paperwork at the police station instead of street beats because he once brought shame to police-hood when he shot the top star of the World Series. As a buddy, he can be dense, hurting Gamble’s tender feelings and using him cynically in the name of police duty.
They’re “the other guys” because “the guys,” were two overachieving, overbearing stars of the force whose heads had become as big as Lady Liberty’s before they made their fatal leap. Teaming up Ferrell and Wahlberg was an inspired move because they’re both born comic actors, delivering the laughs either through wild physical gags or a more subtle type of mimicry.
With his “scrumtrulescent” eyes, Ferrell (that’s his own word) works harder in the more difficult role, where he swings from being a reluctant partner to a gung-ho crime-buster and as a gruff husband to Dr. Sheila Gamble (Eva Mendez). His technique ranges from silent indignation to a hysterical one, each one matched to his versatile voice. Wahlberg is as expressive, his pleas coming from within (“I’m a peacock, you’ve gotta let me fly!”) and his desire oozing from the face, such as his look of disbelief and lust when he first meets Sheila. But, like other comic greats, the duo gives Gamble and Hoitz a kind face, a gentle disposition and an honest heart. Yes, real cops can have those uncomplicated qualities too.
Year’s most quoted lines
Directed by Adam McKay like an indulgent father giving free rein to his highly gifted children, and scripted by himself and Chris Henchy, “The Other Guys” has supplied this year’s most quoted lines, including musings on the serious question, can peacocks fly? The word fest starts rolling when the duo gets locked in one-upmanship over how they dislike each other. “If I were a lion and you were a tuna,” says Hoitz, “I’d swim to the middle of the ocean and eat you and I’d bang your tuna girlfriend.” Whereupon Gamble frees a cascade of conceits that seem to stretch forever.
Graphic metaphors keep the fun going (“the sound of your pee hitting the urinal sounds feminine”), as well as non sequiturs (“I’m Catholic, he’s Episcopalian, so somehow it works”) and mock hyperbole (“I think we all witnessed today a ballet of emotions and feelings,” says Gamble of Hoitz’s Baryshnikov-like pirouettes). The compact yuppie car Prius gets goofy product placement, coming right after the one in “The Town,” in a running visual and verbal gag. It is assigned the female gender for its un-macho but friendly design, and the jokes just keep coming.
Blame this movie for putting the audience in such a lighthearted state that when it’s time to seriously wrap up the story, some feeling of letdown sets in. But this need not be the case because there’s intrigue and more wham-bang action yet to come, more exciting than the fiery car chase that opens the movie. When Gamble and Hoitz set off to investigate scaffolding violations in the buildings owned by billionaire David Ershon (Steve Coogan), little did they know that they will be sitting on top of a rotten scheme that targets the state lottery and, shudder, the state police force’s entire pension fund to cover up Ershon’s huge financial losses. That’s the dubious art of making huge dirty profits from huge dirty losses.
In reality, the plot has been building up fluidly to a showdown. Some may find the Wall Street jargon off-putting, but really, it all boils down to police officers’ pensions at risk of melting down, thanks partly to the apathy of our two police detectives who refused to attend the proxy meeting that decided the stupid move. If this sounds familiar, it’s because American public apathy had played a role in the Bernie Madoff, Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers scandals, and still does. Apparently, some people just don’t wanna hear about it.
Apart from its riches of riffs and one-liners, well-constructed scenes keep “The Other Guys” crackling with comic madness. Some work better than others. The bad-cop-good-cop attempt to entrap Ershon nearly fizzles with its preposterousness, and the duo’s visit to Gamble’s ex-girlfriend who’s still smoldering with desire for him could have been way funnier if it were not hurriedly done. But the dinner at the Gambles with Mendez, a Manhattan Irish pub scene, and a sketch toward the end — where Gamble’s mother-in-law (Viola Harris), disguised as a bag lady with a walker, shuttles back and forth the street and the house to deliver increasingly salacious messages between him and his angry wife – are comedy gems.
In the pub, Jewish humor meets Irish humor as Gamble (or Irish-blooded Ferrell) joins an a cappella group in a lovely rendition of a parody of a tragic Irish rebel song that ends with the English scoundrels burning Harry Potter books. Huh? Another pleaser is the freeze-frame, continuous-shot scene set in the same bar that’s like a music video clip loaded with cool digital effects. It won’t be out of place in “Avatar.”
This year is turning out to be the year of the great supporting cast in the movies, and “The Other Guys” has a good one. Coogan plays Ershon as an unassuming, quick-witted manipulator with the charm of a fading rock-star. Like Elizabeth Hurley and Cameron Diaz before her, Mendez as Gamble’s trophy wife reveals a comedic side to her celebrated silhouette and is very much in on the joke. Michael Keaton is cute and funny as team leader Capt. Gene Mauch, the last link in the conspiracy of silence. But Madame Harris steals the show at the last moment as her pleading eyes and quivering voice, tinged with gleeful malice, turn the audience’s giggles into bursts of laughter.
In one defining moment, Gamble and Hoitz duck under the bed to make sure that their talk is not being recorded. “Did you miss me?” Gamble flusters. Hoitz continues his prattle about the latest findings of their criminal investigation. “Hey did you miss me?” Gamble insists. “Well ahhh, umm yes,” Hoitz replies, then carries on. It’s a splendid irony that after all the huffing and the arguing and the screaming, the best lines of “The Other Guys” come in whispers.