Monday, August 9, 2010

The Other Guys

I went to The Other Guys hoping to see the sharp but loving supercop spoof of the trailer -- and for a short time, I did.

It’s not easy to come up with a car chase/urban gun battle that defies the laws of gravity, nature, and common sense more than what’s routinely issued by Hollywood these days, but the movie’s opening succeeds. Better yet, the cops who performed those hot-dog heroics weren’t our main characters. Our heroes are, as promised, the other guys: a pair of mismatched desk jockeys.

Will Ferrell varies his usual schtick a bit as Alan, a cheery underachiever who’s not so much hopelessly dense (though he’s still pretty clueless) as he is self-protectively walled off, trying to live la vida not-the-least-bit-loca. Mark Wahlberg, making fun of his own monotone intensity, is Terry, Alan’s endearingly dumb, perpetually seething, terminally earnest partner. Wahlberg makes a surprisingly good straight man to the endlessly riffing Ferrell, and the two get into some inspired silliness, like when Wahlberg delivers one of Terry’s nonsensical metaphors, something about a lion and a tuna, and Ferrell promptly comes up with something even more twisted, which sounds as if he made it up on the spot.

There are some tasty recurring bits, like the references to the mistake that got Terry exiled to a desk job, and some excellent talent shows up the minor roles: Michael Keaton has roguish fun with his role the partners’ captain, and Ice-T provides a funny, and judiciously sparely used, hard-guy voiceover. Writer-director Adam McKay, Ferrell’s long-time partner, even has the guts to satirize the way we sanctify cops killed in the line of duty, and he introduces a subplot involving a charismatic charlatan peddling Ponzi schemes that promises to be pretty pointed.

But that’s just one of many promises broken by The Other Guys as it degenerates into a second-rate version of just the kind of formulaic junk it starts out making fun of. Things go south when Terry forces Alan to hit the streets, determined to become a movie-style hero, and Alan’s inner tiger roars, letting us know it will emerge later. Even the jokes get more conventional (there’s an endless string of gags about how girly Alan’s Prius is and a done-to-death bit about how hot Alan’s wife is), asking us to identify with the kind of macho posturing we laughed at in the opening scenes. And what little satire is left becomes about as pointed as a battering ram (the Ponzi schemer stands up in front of a sign for the Center for American Capitalism to exhort his listeners to “Live for excess: It’s the American way!”) before the subplot about greedy fatcats bilking the masses fizzles out altogether.

Terry and Alan wind up protecting the charlatan, driving really fast all over Manhattan with him in the back seat, dodging a fusillade of bullets, because … um … I’m not quite sure. Maybe they wanted him to testify against the bigger villain (Anne Heche, the steely head of a global conglomerate, who’s forcing him to rip off some hapless victim so he can pay back her billions), but after a while, I didn’t really care.

There’s a little pop of populist anger at the end, when we’re told Heche’s company got TARP money from the feds because it’s “too big to fail.” That’s amplified in the graphics over the end credits, which outline the financial scams pulled off by Bernie Madoff, AIG, and others and the billions in our tax dollars that bailed the big companies out. They also spell out some of the obscene inequities of our current economy, like the shrinking size of Americans’ 401(k) plans and the ever-widening chasm between an average worker’s salary and what CEOs pull down.

It all feels like something left over from another movie. Maybe that movie existed in an earlier script or on the cutting room floor, but it’s even less in evidence here than the spoof that made the first 20 or 30 minutes of The Other Guys so enjoyable. The rest of this fitfully amusing but ultimately depressing waste of talent is mostly just chasing around in cars, shooting and being shot at, and unfunny stuff about Alan’s preposterous home life as our heroes overcome their hang-ups, expose wrongdoers, and stop a heinous crime in the nick of time.


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