It’s a testament to Will Ferrell’s comic genius that his movies are any good at all. Ferrell isn’t a satirist or an observational humorist, and he isn’t comfortably confined within the guardrails of a script, even a well-written one. His natural outlet is the sketch comedy of Saturday Night Live, where his gift for digressive silliness could be packaged into five- or 10-minute bits. So a good Will Ferrell movie, like the inspired buddy-cop comedy The Other Guys, gloms together enough clever riffs and random funny business to overcome the inevitable lumpiness and dead ends. It helps that Ferrell’s regular collaborator, director Adam McKay (Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers), has a visual panache that’s rare in Hollywood comedies, and especially useful when shoot-outs and car chases come into play. Cop Out this ain’t.
The bang-up opening sequence establishes the pecking order in the New York Police Department, where a couple of meathead action junkies, played by Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, are the city’s top cops, winning plaudits in spite of their outrageously overzealous style. Meanwhile, the other guys of the title are the desk jockeys. Their ranks include Ferrell (who happily bangs out police reports and accounting paperwork) and his belligerent partner Mark Wahlberg, who’s been riding the pine ever since he shot a local hero. Mostly by accident, Ferrell and Wahlberg stumble into a huge white-collar case involving a British billionaire (Steve Coogan) and swindled investors, but the risk-averse Ferrell doesn’t easily take to the dangers of real detective work.
Great casting takes The Other Guys most of the way: Ferrell draws a wealth of good material from his character’s oddball ineffectuality, and he partners perfectly with Wahlberg, who’s always best at his most incredulous. In the role of their commander, Michael Keaton finally gets a chance to return to the unhinged comedy of his early films, and Coogan is appropriately oily as a preening moneybags-type who charms people with Broadway tickets and cucumber water. Some running gags get stretched to the breaking point, like Ferrell’s unaccountable ability to attract hot women (Eva Mendes plays his wife) and a story from his past, but McKay gives the film enough structure and style to keep the action moving. And as in the best Ferrell vehicles, if a joke fails, several disarming and original ones always follow in short order.