Will Ferrell became a star by incarnating a hallowed movie character: the big (6 ft. 3 in.) baby. He was Santa's overgrown helper in Elf, a figure of preening immaturity in his sports comedies (Kicking & Screaming, Talladega Nights, Blades of Glory, Semi-Pro) and, as one of the Step Brothers, a run-amok 10-year-old in a 40-year-old's body. His version of our last President, on Saturday Night Live and in the Broadway and HBO stand-up show You're Welcome America: A Final Night with George W. Bush, portrayed a man stuck in bluster and emotional infancy. All these works hewed to a basic comedy premise id + idiocy = funny and locked Ferrell into a permanently arrested preadolescence.
So it's almost a shock to see him playing a semifunctioning adult in his new action comedy, The Other Guys. His Allen Gamble, a forensic accountant in the New York police department, is no Will child; rather, he's almost mulishly mild-mannered, with a parson's forbearance and the temperament of a pocket calculator. He feels no need to run around topless; the obligatory Ferrell nude scene is missing here. Wild Will would stick his tush in someone's face; but here, Allen is on the butt end of humiliation, and he takes it manfully, as if he were so accustomed to chagrin that he could suppress or ignore it. Allen's reluctance to explode is almost as weird as Other Will's inability to keep the lid on, but it anchors him in the world of psychological compromise that for most adults counts as real life.
His partner, Terry (Mark Wahlberg), is, true to the cop-movie dictum, Allen's polar, possibly bipolar, opposite. A fiery detective born to prowl mean streets collaring perps, Terry has been rendered deskbound by his precinct captain (Michael Keaton) since the day when, on a manhunt in the bowels of Yankee Stadium, he accidentally gunned down Derek Jeter. ("You should have shot A-Rod," one officer says.) No anger-management class can slake his itch for hard action. He'd love to be like the NYPD's star cops, Highsmith and Danson (Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson, in cool-dude cameos), who'd still be catching killers and demolishing most of Manhattan if they hadn't, in a reprise of the first scene from Kick-Ass, taken their superhero status too literally and jumped off a skyscraper roof to their deaths.
So when Allen finds a case of tax evasion involving one David Ershon (Steve Coogan), a Bernie Madoff type with an English accent, Terry joins the chase. It descends into quite a labyrinth, threading through African zillionaires, Australian goons and the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association. The elaborate plot, and the care lavished on car chases and crashes, are two clues that director Adam McKay and his co-writer Chris Henchy don't just love parodying cop movies. They love cop movies.
McKay, who was with Ferrell in his SNL days, also directed the star's best comedies, Anchorman and Talladega Nights, plus Step Brothers. He knows the key to Ferrell's appeal as well as anyone; he must also have seen it was time for a makeover. McKay and Henchy give Allen a backstory that includes a college extracurricular in pimping as well as salvation by a gorgeous physician (Eva Mendes) who married him and still adores him a passion as unaccountable as it is quite admirably unexplained.
Terry too has a clouded past. In a furious confrontation with his dancer ex-girlfriend (Lindsay Sloane), he suddenly performs a spectacular pirouette, later telling Allen he learned ballet as a kid to mock the sissies. (Allen: "You learned to dance like that sarcastically?") It's one of the joys of a film with no ambition other than to entertain that it leaves its knottier impulses to our imagination.
Like too many comedies these days, The Other Guys has a studiously ugly, slapdash look, as if to warn the audience not to expect a finely crafted film. And there are sections in which, scene to scene, the movie's IQ drops by double digits. The heroes do something stupid, like giving the evidence they'd accumulated over to the bad guy's lawyer, then explain it away. ("We just gave all our evidence over to the bad guy's lawyer.") But like some silly summer song that can't be shaken from the mind, this is a catchy enterprise, no better than it tries to be and no less funny.