The Other Guys isn't a spoof with a purpose. It's several spoofs with multiple purposes, all rolled into 100 minutes -- occasionally hilarious, but just as often flailing at missed comic opportunities.
Mostly, director Adam McKay's comedy mocks the machismo of cop movies -- specifically the tiresome genre that buddies two mismatched policemen for mayhem, hijinks and ultimate redemption. His misfits are one guy who desperately wants to be a supercop -- played by Mark Wahlberg -- and another, played by Will Ferrell as an inveterate desk jockey who loves paperwork so much he gets excited about scaffolding violations.
It's refreshingly satirical, at first: Both Wahlberg's hotheaded Terry and Ferrell's milquetoast Allen are taunted mercilessly by fellow cops, wannabe action-movie studs who strut like junior-high bullies. Ferrell's plump-cheeked, pinch-lipped and cheerfully dull character is an especially good baffle for the testosterone deluge. Likewise the opening sequences, which find Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson playing parody supercops, wisecracking their way through implausible car chases, unscathed by blizzards of bullets.
Trouble is, how long can you parody a genre that's long since devolved into self-parody? Jackson's nerves-of-steel quips, for instance, are barely distinguishable from the source material they spoof.
Perhaps sensing as much, McKay and co-writer Chris Henchy shift gears, and more than once. First, there's a little The Office -- improvish-feeling workplace comedy. Then come insane minor characters like Alan's ex-girlfriend, who pop up for cheap-laugh window-dressing.
But much of The Other Guys -- and much of what works best -- feels inspired by an earlier cop spoof: Jerry Zucker's Naked Gun movies (derived from the short-lived TV series Police Squad), starring Leslie Nielsen as the self-assured yet clueless Lt. Frank Drebbin.
When Other Guys' unctuous global-financier villain (Steve Coogan) tricks Allen and Terry into taking Broadway tickets as bribes, and then we see them actually attending the shows (including Jersey Boys) not once but twice before realizing the ploy, we can practically smell the Naked Gun homage. And it smells good.
But the Naked Gun movies worked because of their rigorously sustained absurdist tone: The mask never fell. Other Guys, by contrast, simply tries everything. Sometimes it wants to be The Office for Lethal Weapon fans. Sometimes McKay effectively deploys comically inappropriate music cues from Phil Collins -- but then he scores a climatic shootout with a pounding White Stripes track. That's exactly what a straight cop movie would do. If this is violence as irony, please pass the Fight Club.
McKay has directed Ferrell in half his hits: Step Brothers, Talladega Nights, Anchorman. But while Other Guys boasts a good supporting cast (Eva Mendes and Michael Keaton both have nice moments), often the film sinks because Wahlberg can't match Ferrell. Wahlberg's been quite funny in films like I [Heart] Huckabees and even The Departed, but the looser feel here seems to leave him adrift. A key problem is that for most of the movie, the dynamic between he and Ferrell barely changes: Allen says something nerdy, and Terry yells "Shut up!" Two scenes later, it happens again.
Moreover, some of the best jokes are lost in the pacing and auditory shuffle. (My favorite that barely registers: After Allen's much-derided Prius is car-jacked, a fellow cop calls to report, "We found your Prius -- it was voting for Nader.")
As satire, Other Guys has another target that's not cinematic: The bad guys are high-finance crooks. (The big plot reveal is the identity of the mysterious principal mark in their fraudulent investment scheme.) While this message isn't overemphasized, the end credits feature a sprightly montage of graphics and stats about corporate bailouts and runaway CEO pay.
Still, The Other Guys remains essentially a cop movie about cop movies. In the 1970s, the police genre gave us seedy, morally compromised antiheros; by the '80s, our unease with authority had retreated before our fear of the streets. The movie cop who's ruled since has been Dirty Harry with joke-writers. The good-hearted Other Guys is a palatable footnote to that history.