This has been an instructive summer as to the relative talents of comedy stars past and present.
On the low end of the scale, you have “Grown Ups” with Adam Sandler and his former “Saturday Night Live” castmates, whose time was 15 years ago. On the upper end, you have “Dinner for Schmucks,” with Steve Carell, who is hot at this moment.
And in between, you have “The Other Guys,” starring Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell – and Ferrell’s moment was the beginning of this decade, a lifetime ago in terms of the popularity of movie comics. It’s not awful, not great, with enough laughs to keep you watching but too many dud jokes to be satisfying.
Like virtually every film that Ferrell has made with writer-director Adam McKay, “The Other Guys” is far too long. It’s probably better than you expect – but definitely not as good as you wish. The website Ferrell and McKay created is called Funny or Die; I suppose this entry would avoid a death sentence, but just barely.
What works is the bizarre chemistry between the testosterone-prone Wahlberg and the fuzzy, plumpish Ferrell. Wahlberg’s anger and Ferrell’s mild-mannered obliviousness are usually the ingredients for the film’s laughs.
On the other hand, there are too many moments where you can tell that Ferrell is just riffing, while McKay laughs his butt off behind the camera. A real director would have indulged Ferrell’s impulses, then deleted them from the finished film, rather than slowing its pace with vacuous moments of unfunny improv.
Ferrell and Wahlberg play partners in the New York Police Department – and they’re the laughingstock of their precinct. Wahlberg is Terry, an over-amped detective who mistakenly shot Derek Jeter while working security at a Yankee playoff game. Ferrell is Alan, his opposite: a forensic accountant who lives to do paperwork.
They’re the butt of the jokes in an office where the big studs are two hotshot cops played by Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. When the big dogs are killed in the line of duty, Terry is convinced that this is his and Alan’s chance to get out of the office and prove themselves.
Alan, however, is fascinated by a case he’s gleaned from reading paperwork, involving a billionaire (Steve Coogan) who has dozens of construction projects but has never applied for a scaffolding permit. When Alan bumps into the billionaire and tries to arrest him for this transgression, he and Terry are warned off the case by an Australian special ops guy (Ray Stevenson), who claims to be the billionaire’s head of security.
In fact, there is a huge swindle in the works, which Terry and Alan try to track down. But the plot is too complicated for the amount of laughter it provokes. And the action – car chases, gun fights – is too generic to be either amusing or exciting. It’s meant to spoof the excesses of 80s buddy-cop films, but then, so did “Cop Out.”
The laughs in the film belong to the Ferrell-Wahlberg interplay, though, again, writers McKay and Chris Henchy are better at coming up with ideas for jokes than actually fleshing them out into satisfying bits. One of the few that work is the notion that, somehow, Alan is irresistible to hot women – and not only doesn’t know it but doesn’t consider the women that hot. That includes his wife, a physician played with great good humor by Eva Mendes, and an old girlfriend played by Natalie Zea.
Still, there’s a long-running joke about Alan’s college days – when he was an unlikely pimp named Gator – that goes nowhere. Perhaps it was funny on the set when Ferrell shouted, “Gator don’t play that,” but it’s not funny on the screen.
On the other hand, Michael Keaton (who some might remember as the Will Ferrell of the mid-1980s) shines as their short-tempered captain, particularly when he’s allowed to get goofy. But it’s a waste to make the reliable Coogan a straight-man to Ferrell.
By the end of “The Other Guys,” you’re worn out, not from laughing but from the strain of waiting to laugh. As I said, there are a surprising number of moments that work – but far too many that don’t for this movie to be considered a success.