Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures
Review by Ryan Wilson

Like Jerry Lewis in his prime, humorist Will Ferrell falls somewhere between low and high comedy. The comedy is high due to the Ferrell's mix of satire and absurd observational humor, but the comedy is also low because Ferrell's targeted fan base is among the masses he loves to lampoon. It's frat humor that makes fun of the fraternity system.

Consider Ferrell in Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. Ferrell's ignoramus race car driver is just a version of his George W. Bush impression, but he uses the character to critique not just Nascar but how America has become a Nascar culture. Similarly in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Ferrell embodies his mustached dupe to both spoof the local news business and to dissect machismo in the era of women’s rights.

Ferrell's core audience isn’t likely discussing these themes. Instead they're quoting Ferrell's best lines at barbecues and during work breaks. And that's the genius of Will Ferrell when he’s at his best; he can make us laugh so much that we forget that the larger joke is actually on us.

When Ferrell isn't at his best, his larger themes are missing. When his targets are just too easy, the jokes also seem weak. Last year's Land of The Lost rang especially hollow, as did the sports themed Semi-Pro and Blades of Glory. None of these films have a mission, none take on much besides the obvious, and thus they don't elicit much besides chuckles.

Ferrell's new comedy The Other Guys is neither among his best nor his worst work. Like an average Saturday Night Live sketch, many of which Ferrell has been a part, the central concept his hilarious, but the longer it goes on, the more tiresome it becomes.

The Other Guys begins as a parody of the typical detective-action film made in the 1980s. At one character's apartment we see a poster for the Sylvester Stallone film Cobra, as if that character were every cop's aspiration. Enter Ferrell's Detective Allen Gamble, who is more than happy not to be this sort of action hero. He's a thick-rimmed glasses-wearing cop more interested in desk work. His specialty is "forensic accounting," which is an actual profession, but coming out of Ferrell’s mouth feels like a nice swipe at the CSI TV franchise.

Farrell's Detective Gamble is partnered with Detective Terry Holtz, perfectly played by Mark Wahlberg, who's itching for some real action. The best parts of the film include watching these two opposites feud over how to break their case. Wahlberg wants to charge in, guns blazing while Farrell would prefer busting criminals on scaffolding violations.

But before we even get to Farrell or Wahlberg we see some over-the-top action involving the city's "star" detectives Highsmith and Dawson, played by Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. These are the actual Stallone/Eddie Murphy/Kurt Russell heroes complete with catch phrases and loud chase scenes. It's funny, as you would expect, but it would have been better to see more interaction between the hero cops and "the other guys." Highsmith and Dawson exit the stage too early, though in hilarious fashion.

Where the comedy slows is when "the other guys" become the heroes. How much funnier would the film have been if Ferrell and Wahlberg remained the side characters and their plight and frustration continued? Instead they somehow transform into the leading men the film would scorn. As they get closer to saving the day, they become less interesting as well as less funny. They even get love interests with some pointless scenes tacked on.

It's a disappointment, mainly because Ferrell is at his best working with the minutia of his accountant. From his taste in music to his choice of car, Detective Gamble is a portrait of the great American middleman, the one we need to do the paperwork. Evolving him into an action star is like changing Ricky Bobby into an environmentalist. It breaks his character and misses the target.

The film does, however, resurrect the career of Michael Keaton, who's been missing in action as a comedian since his great work in the 80s. Keaton plays Ferrell and Wahlberg's precinct captain, while also working a second job at Bed, Bath, and Beyond. He steals nearly every scene he’s in with a loose and dry delivery of his lines. It's good to see Keaton being funny again.

As for Ferrell, he's funny enough, but there's little to remember in The Other Guys, no lines or moments to be shared around the office or the bar. Those searching for the Will Ferrell with more bite might check out his reoccurring role in the HBO series Eastbound and Down, where he plays car dealer Ashley Schaeffer. That Ferrell produces the series gives us hope that he hasn’t lost his punch.

Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College's WUCX Q 90.1, airing every Saturday at 8:35 a.m. and again at 9:35 a.m.. For more information, visit deltabroadcasting.org.

© Ryan Wilson, 2010