The idea to pair up over-the-top comedian Will Ferrell and movie tough guy Mark Wahlberg was hatched three years ago during the Academy Awards. During the show’s opening number Jack Black and Ferrell sang a song about comedians never winning Oscars followed by some vicious roasting of the dramatic actors seated in the front rows. Jack Black told Peter O’Toole he was going to beat him “down with my Nickelodeon Award!” and Ferrell insulted Ryan Gostling. But when he got to Best Actor Wahlberg Ferrell feigned fear and said, “I won’t mess with you. You’re actually kinda badass. Once again, I hope we’re cool. You are very talented.” Wahlberg’s unscripted reaction convinced director Adam McKay (Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers) that the mismatched pair would work well together on screen. One thing is for sure, the Academy’s record of handing out Oscars to comedians is unlikely to be changed by the resulting film.
Ferrell and Wahlberg play New York City Detectives Allen Gamble and Terry Hoitz. The two do not get along. Gamble is a forensic accountant content to push a pencil and avoid doing any down-and-dirty-and-dangerous fieldwork. Hoitz, on the other hand, is sick of riding a desk and desperately wants a chance to prove himself and win the respect of station hotshots P.K. Highsmith (Jackson) and Christopher Danson (Johnson) after the embarrassing incident—he accidentally shot Derek Jeter during a Yankees game—that landed him Gamble as a partner. He gets his chance when Gamble uncovers a Madoffesque white collar conspiracy.
Will Ferrell has been on a bit of a big screen losing streak lately. His last film “Land of the Lost” was a total bust both comedically and commercially and for a while it looked like the glory days of “Anchorman” were a highpoint he wasn’t likely to ever top. His work had become excessive, as if every director he worked with was too enamored of his improvisational style, allowing him do whatever he wanted, no matter how long he milked a joke or held an uncomfortable silence. In Adam McKay he has found someone unafraid to yell cut and rein him in. With McKay behind the camera Gamble becomes Ferrell’s most restrained comedic character since “Stranger than Fiction.” He’s still extremely silly, but in much smaller doses than usual. A little Ferrell absurdity goes a long way and “The Other Guys” never lets him or his silliness overstay its welcome.
He balances nicely with Wahlberg who dials up his usual tough guy intensity about twenty-five percent, spitting out lines like “I am a peacock! I need to fly!” as though he isn’t in on the joke. He rides the line between serious and absurd and pulls off a lot of laughs in the process.
It’s also nice to see Michael Keaton back in a comedy. He’s slowly been easing his way back in after doing a string of dramas, but this is the funniest we’ve seen him since “Beetlejuice.” As the precinct captain who works part time at Bed, Bath and Beyond to make ends meet he displays the kind of way with a joke that made him a star in the first place.
“The Other Guys” is an enjoyable piece of summer fluff, that may revive not only the buddy cop comedy (after “Cop Out” mortally wounded it earlier this year) but also interest in Will Ferrell’s brand of absurdity.