Hey, it’s Blockbluster, our seasonal feature in which Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart leave their desks to find out during which sort of movies regular people all over the country are polishing wooden handguns. This week they play bad cop-bad cop with Adam McKay’s The Other Guys.
Hey Sutton, remember just two weeks ago when I was all like, “damn Hollywood be hating on some NYPD like they The L Magazine or something”? Well, that reached its apex here in The Other Guys. Seriously, Ben, have you ever seen a mainstream comedy that so relentlessly mocked the machismo ethos that pervades police precincts across the boroughs? I’ve never seen a movie that hated cops so much, painted them with such broad strokes as Yankee-loving, trigger-happy, Prius-hating ex-pimps: guys who can’t tell a ballet studio from a strip club, guys who cause millions of dollars in property damage and put untold lives at risk in order to nab suspects on a misdemeanor marijuana charge. (You know, such a realistic portrayal.)
The only thing The Other Guys seems to hate more than cops is bankers: this movie’s also the hitherto apotheosis of the economic anxiety that’s been creeping into the blockbusters lately. Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrel star as two schlubby cops—not the heroes, but the other guys, get it, Ben?—who wind up unraveling a complicated, Madoff-like Ponzi scheme that involves several book-cooking financiers, Nigerians, Chechen “patriots,” and a SEC officer who doubles as “the Madoff character”’s private attorney. I mean, as you’re watching, you’re thinking “oh yeah this movie’s got a lot of vitriol for the financial system” but then…how about those end credits, huh? Against Saul Bass-like animations, director McKay lays out an extensive stream of outrage-provoking statistics about bailouts, bonuses and executive compensation. It’s perhaps the most shockingly blatant political moment in the past…um, many years of mainstream cinema. Too bad most of the audience at our screening was already in the lobby, retrieving their checked cell phones. (Or, was it too bad, Ben? I swear, if this neo-populist rage translates itself into election victories for Republicans, Americans will have proven that democracy is retarded.)
I guess we could say The Other Guys is a movie about excess: financial excess, testosterone excess. You know, American excesses. (Do you think the absurdly copious product placements were a part of this—there was even one for Tower Records, which is out of business—or do you think that’s just the way movies are made now?) The biggest problem with this movie is that it cast two comic actors who are funniest when they’re fighting against excess; Ferrel, as the straight man here, is the funniest he’s been in many, many years here, because he’s so subdued; unfortunately, that’s also Wahlberg’s strength as a comic actor (see I Heart Huckabees or The Happening), so he feels miscast, which was a big disappointment.
Anyway, you could almost say this movie hates America, except it seems a little more complicated: this movie hates what America has become? You know, a country that worships heroes, figureheads, celebrities; what other movie would shoot Derek Jeter in the leg? Those people aren’t the real heroes, Ben. The Other Guys is like an anti-A Team: it thinks all of us Americans are the real heroes—not the bankers, not the hotshot cops. Us little guys, us other guys. That seems to be the dumb gist of the new recession-era blockbusters, don’t you think? Making people feel like they’re special?
Well, Stewart, I’m not terribly convinced by The Other Guys’ condescending, feel-good populism either. Must be because I missed David “Madoff” Ershon’s (Steve Coogan) speech to “The Center for American Capitalism,” which he caps with the command: “Live for excess, it’s the American way!” But I certainly enjoyed watching Samuel Jackson and The Rock (the “guys” to Ferrell and Walhberg’s “other guys”) launch a Mustang lodged in a double-decker tour bus at some jewel thieves and into the lobby of Trump Tower. And the Chechen-Nigerian-NYPD-baddies shootout in the conference room at Frank Gerry’s IAC building in West Chelsea. And when Allen (Ferrell) went haywire during the bad cop-bad cop routine at Ershon’s top floor Time Warner Center office, destroying furniture and expensive art, just like the final fight in Kick-Ass. I guess I just enjoy watching fancy architecture smashed to shit.
Allen and Terry (Wahlberg), meanwhile, favor much humbler surroundings: they track down Ershon’s accountants to a Sopranos-style strip mall in suburban New Jersey; they meet to mope about marital malaise at a deserted waterfront cul-de-sac that, judging from the Midtown skyline across the way, must have been in Greenpoint or Long Island City; then they head to a dive-y bar where their drunken night unfolds as a bizarre frozen tableau fly-through like in that Philips commercial.
That intensely stylized scene and the sporadic, never-explained and very superfluous voice-over narration (by Ice T!) were only the most conspicuously out-of-place elements in a film more formally disjointed than anything we’ve seen since, like, Year One. But at least here the shifts in tone and tempo correspond to actually funny set pieces and genre parodies. Like the opening and mid-movie car chases, each with running commentary from the self-conscious characters knowingly participating in an action movie (to better effect than another recent Marky Mark cop movie parody, Date Night). Or when Captain Gene (Michael Keaton), in close-up, launches into a typical police station pep talk before a cut to a medium shot reveals the incongruous setting: the staff room at his second job as supervisor at Bed Bath and Beyond—which he needs to pay for his son to attend NYU, where “he’s exploring his sexuality.”
What I’m saying, I suppose, is that The Other Guys wears its populism like a rumpled but well-fitted gray flannel suit. Allen and Terry both have really nice homes despite their pitiful policemen salaries, which we learn during the closing credits’ infographic aren’t compensated for in pension funds. Hence the duo’s acute feelings of emasculation (Allen’s Prius is alternately called a vagina and a “tampon on wheels,” because caring about the environment is for pussies, Stewart), which they overcome by disregarding red tape and proving their righteous agency. The little man can make a difference, so to speak. The film’s conception of its can-do middle-class characters and audience as white suburban heterosexual men who love desk jobs and the Yankees is as obsessively status quo as its recuperative last minute championing of the NYPD.
Women, meanwhile, are marginal and feminine to a nearly parodic fault. Terry’s girlfriend is a ballerina who by day works in an art gallery (kinda like Paul Rudd’s girlfriend in Dinner for Schmucks) and Allen’s disproportionately attractive wife Sheila (Eva Mendes), ostensibly a doctor, only ever appears as a homemaker. In one of the funnier gags, she dresses as her elderly mother and sneaks past Allen’s enemies with a walker, performing an even more constraining kind of femininity. (Where’s Michael Bay when you need a sexually and narratively empowered working-class woman?) The Other Guys smuggles some sexist double standards along with its placating class politics. In the spirit of another hilarious sequence, in which Ershon bribes Allen and Terry with tickets to Broadway musicals (more emasculation!), maybe a more appropriate title would have been “The Other Guys and Dolls.”
Special Bonus: Will Ferrell’s NYPD Recruitment Video