Now 10 years old, Adam McKay’s screwball screed against Wall Street is hindered by being a cop-centric affair.
10 years after The Other Guys, a lot has changed for its principal actors and director. Will Ferrell is still headlining comedies, but modern Ferrell vehicles like Holmes & Watson haven’t been anywhere near as beloved as Anchorman. Mark Wahlberg, meanwhile, almost exclusively does Peter Berg action movies aimed at baby boomers. As for director Adam McKay, he’s now helming award season dramas venting rage at 2000s-era politics (The Big Short, Vice) with famous people explaining basic socio-political concepts to the camera.
Ferrell, Wahlberg, and McKay are all on very different paths in 2020. But for one moment in August 2010, their paths all crossed with McKay’s action comedy, The Other Guys. Though it’s a buddy cop movie, The Other Guys is not about the kind of badasses you usually see headlining this kind of fare. We meet those kinds of characters in a prologue in the form of Detectives Highsmith (Samuel L. Jackson) and Danson (Dwayne Johnson). Highsmith and Danson are cool: They crash cars, they catch bad guys, they make snarky quips while in high-speed pursuits.
The actual protagonists of The Other Guys are far less glamorous. Though Allen Gamble (Ferrell) and Terry Hoitz (Wahlberg) are police detectives, they rarely leave their desks. They spend their days typing away on computers, toiling away for NYPD’s accounting department. This suits mild-mannered Gamble fine, but Hoitz is a hothead who wants the chance to redeem himself as an officer (especially after an incident in which he shot Derek Jeter in the foot).
Hoitz gets his chance when Gamble stumbles upon a conspiracy involving billionaire Sir David Ershon (Steve Coogan), which starts as a seemingly routine scaffolding permit violation but leads Gamble and Hoitz to discover a much larger plot involving money laundering, securities fraud, and Chechen mercenaries. Now the other guys are the ones tackling this Wall Street subterfuge.
As recent films like Ready or Not and Knives Out have shown, the rich make for great baddies in genre fare. They’re immediately unlikeable for hoarding money when so many don’t have anything, while letting audiences live vicariously through protagonists who challenge the largesse of the wealthy. The Other Guys was released a mere two years after the 2008 recession and after Bernie Madoff was sent to prison for his Ponzi scheme, which bilked nearly $64.8 million from working people. The searing realization of what rich white people can get away with was fresh on the mind of both McKay and the audience.
Meanwhile, the entire concept of centering the film around ordinary people (“the other guys”) is meant to provide a voice to the type of people upended by the financial crisis. All of the folks who actually lost money in 2008 or in the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme before that or any other financial crisis? They’re represented by Hoitz and Gamble, two everyday people who drive around in a Prius.
This coding of helpful figures as scrappier, financially-challenged people even extends to supporting characters. Take Captain Gene Mauch (Michael Keaton), who works two jobs, one of them at Bed Bath & Beyond, to help his son get through college. Fittingly for both angles, he’s much happier at his working-class job at BB&B than the screaming, enraged police chief cliché Keaton’s clearly riffing on.
McKay’s fixation on the corruption that informed this real-world event is so discernible that it keeps going even after The Other Guys ends. Many comedies just play a smattering of outtakes over the credits, but McKay’s credits scroll by a variety of infographics illustrating how out-of-control financial inequality has gotten in America. Most comedies are content to let the audience leave the theater chuckling. The Other Guys wants viewers to leave seething at real-world injustices.
Unfortunately, this critical theme of The Other Guys is undercut by some of the film’s other choices that were out of date even in 2010. For one thing, filtering the story through the perspective of two cops undercuts the idea of Hoitz and Gamble representing the “little guy.” They may not be rich like Ershon, but they are still two white people working for the American police department. Not only do they have an enormous amount of privilege on their side, but they themselves are part of another broken institution that gives them almost literal license to hurt people.
The Other Guys’ whole approach to police officers is of this troubling variety. A group therapy session full of violent cops is played off for light laughs; meanwhile, the audience is supposed to cheer when Hoitz chooses to stop being a non-violent traffic officer and returns to being a gun-firing police officer. These choices tend to complicate any salient points The Other Guys makes about Wall Street corruption. It’s basically the cinematic equivalent of Clickhole’s “Heartbreaking: The Worst Person You Know Just Made A Great Point” article.
[T]he light-hearted goofiness gets upended by the way The Other Guys turns a blind eye to one form of real-world corruption while highlighting another.
McKay’s recurring lack of room for people of color and women in his films also creeps in here and further undercuts its intended sociopolitical commentary. Apparently, only a handful of people of color exist in the New York City of The Other Guys. Meanwhile, women exist to either fawn over Gamble or serve as fodder for Hoitz’s tragic backstory. How can the movie claim to provide a voice for the downtrodden when so many oppressed groups never even get a chance to speak?
Of course, the sociopolitical and representation-related elements aren’t the reason this movie exists. It’s a movie that’s about Ferrell and Wahlberg being goofy cops with their wooden guns, hidden Little River Band CD’s, and bad peacock metaphors. To be sure, many of those antics are fun, especially the ones involving Keaton’s character. But the light-hearted goofiness gets upended by the way The Other Guys turns a blind eye to one form of real-world corruption while highlighting another.
In that respect, it’s more similar than expected to McKay’s 2018 film, Vice. Both are rightfully enraged at powerful corruption but can’t seem to imagine that anyone would have a more interesting perspective on this than other corrupt white people. In both films, the limited number of perspectives turn what’s supposed to be an outraged screech into a softer, agitated yelp.
Unlike Vice, though, The Other Guys isn’t all darker political drama all the time. Most of this 2010 comedy is focused on bits of lunacy like the Lion/Tuna monologue. The funny moments are there, yes, but in many respects, The Other Guys is a bit of a cop-out.