So that's what it feels like to laugh during a Will Ferrell movie.
It's been so long that—to be honest—before I even watched The Other Guys, I wrote out a three paragraph opening to this review in which I lamented that it was time to stop pretending and finally accept that Ferrell peaked as a movie star and comedian more than half a decade ago.
There's still an element of truth to that. Ferrell is unlikely to ever duplicate the brilliant four-year run from 2000 to 2004 when he finished up his tenure on "Saturday Night Live" and proceeded to star in Zoolander, Old School, Elf and Anchorman, the latter being perhaps the most re-watchable film of the last decade. But post-Ron Burgundy, things quickly fell off a cliff, with Ferrell giving us such anti-classics as Bewitched, Blades of Glory, Semi-Pro and last year's Land of the Lost. Even Talladega Nights was a disappointment. Maybe Ferrell has a bad agent. Or maybe it's just too hard to pass up a $15 million paycheck for essentially playing the same goofball in every film.
Ferrell still plays a goofball in The Other Guys, but the film is so much better that anything he's been in since George W. Bush's first term that I was initially incredulous of my own laughter—that reticence a direct result of the aforementioned six-year span in which Ferrell's only decent movie was the underrated dark comedy Stranger Than Fiction.
That's not to say I liked The Other Guys because my expectations were so low. The buddy cop parody succeeds because it sticks to a simple formula that plays right into Ferrell's comfort zone. Throw in Mark Wahlberg as the straight man, Michael Keaton as the boss and two of the funniest cameos in recent memory by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and Samuel L. Jackson, and we've got ourselves a legitimate comedy. And just in case you needed another reason, Ice-T handles the narration.
Ferrell and Wahlberg play Allen and Terry, respectively, two newly partnered NYPD desk jockeys. Allen is there by choice—he sought out the most mundane of jobs doing police paper work all day and excels in tracking down building permit violators. Terry, meanwhile, has been relegated to deskwork after accidentally shooting Derek Jeter at Yankee Stadium. The two play off each other with ease—Terry relishes in antagonizing Allen for not wanting to pursue real bad guys, but the insults tend to just bounce off Allen. This of course just makes Terry more exasperated. These early office scenes play out like the best "Saturday Night Live" skits. At one point Ferrell launches into a two-minute rant involving tuna fish hunting lions in Africa during which Wahlberg is obviously doing all he can not to burst out laughing at the improvisation.
Like all buddy cop films, there's eventually a real crime to solve. In this case, the partners accidentally find themselves pursuing a complicated corporate swindle that resembles the standard white collar crimes we're used to hearing about—well, standard until the inevitable gun fights, motorcycle shootouts and low-flying helicopter chases through Manhattan get going.
The plot is secondary anyway. The real fun here tends to be on the periphery: Terry's shock at meeting Allen's beautiful wife; Terry and Allen visiting their captain (Keaton) at his second job at Bed Bath & Beyond; Keaton's hilarious proclivity to quote TLC lyrics without realizing it; and, of course, any scene that involves Allen driving his Toyota Prius.
Again, it's the "Saturday Night Live" model worked to perfection. Give us scene after scene with strong characters, a good set-up and some improv, and all of a sudden all of those requisite chase scenes toward the end go down a lot easier than they otherwise would. Even those scenes are done with a wink to the genre: The helicopter is ultimately taken down by golfers at a New York City driving range. It never quite reaches Naked Gun-level parody, but in this case that's actually a good thing.
The Other Guys is not without some unevenness. Most of the misses involve Allen's tumultuous past as a pimp during his college years. The set-up and flashbacks work well, but the scenes in which Allen's misdeeds haunt him in the present day end up being more creepy than funny. Just imagine watching Ferrell's classic 1995 "Get off the Shed" "SNL" skit, but if every joke fell flat. That leaves an angry man yelling. And that's a little awkward for everyone.
But The Other Guys is mostly a throwback to that long-ago time known as the early aughts when Ferrell (and writing partner Adam McKay) gave us films that didn't make us sad for everyone involved. The formula is there: avoid sports at all costs (one of the hardest genres to do really well, and one of the easiest to screw up), forget about remakes (seriously, Bewitched?) and embrace the original comedy.
Of course, I'm willing to bend my sequel rule if the rumors about Anchorman 2 are true.
The Other Guys continues at the Carmike 10 and the Village 6.