It says something that one of Will Ferrell's most grounded, meaningful comedies to date saw him cast as one of Santa's elves. Playing an elf was a departure of sorts for the “Saturday Night Live” vet, who specializes in buffoons — people such as Ricky Bobby, the puffed-up, dimwit NASCAR driver, and Ron Burgundy, his puffed-up dimwit of a local news anchor.
You instantly recognize the type in Allen Gamble, although the character is slightly inverted. A detective on the New York police force in “The Other Guys,” it's Allen's lack of manly characteristics that have relegated him to a desk. And yet the movie is a little better than the average Ferrell movie. Like his character, the star doesn't hog the spotlight, a mistake that sunk “Semi-Pro” and marred some of Ferrell's better work. Possibly inspired by the catastrophic failure of last year's “Land of the Lost,” Ferrell and longtime writing partner Adam McKay seem to be working harder to create something more than a one-gear vehicle for the star.
The result isn't anything extraordinary, mind you. Ferrell is his usual clownish self, and the movie has, not surprisingly for the descendent of Chazz Michael Michaels, a few moments of Ferrell in lazy, arrogant mode. And yet it's fair to call this Ferrell's best work in years, more than funny enough to warrant a look if you like this type of comedy.
It would be interesting if you could chart the relationship between the success of Ferrell's movie outings and the size of his ego, because the latter seems to be more in check this time from the outset. He doesn't play a harebrained stud as much as a little guy shunning danger. It even takes a while to get to the Brillo-headed star, as the movie opens with a lengthy prequel involving the action-hero antics of star officers Highsmith (Samuel L. Jackson) and Danson (Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson), two adrenaline-loving testosterone freaks who play like characters from a Jerry Bruckheimer movie taken to the extreme.
An untimely tragedy opens the door for the other guys. No, not Allen and his partner, Terry (Mark Wahlberg), not yet, but a couple of braver, more ambitious cops on the force who covet the fast lane. The joke on Ferrell's Allen is that he's a complacent and satisfied desk jockey, which humiliates and frustrates his partner, a former rising department star derailed by an accident involving baseball star Derek Jeter. It takes a lot of time and convincing to get Allen out on the street and solving crime, which opens the movie up to a broader, more satisfying range of comedy than you might expect.
Not that “The Other Guys” is a radical deviation from the Ferrell-McKay formula. Ferrell is the wild and crazy moron we've become used to, as when he tells Terry he's determined to “climb over that anger wall of yours,” followed by a run-in with explosives that leaves the out-of-shape comedian bellowing like a wounded walrus. If Ferrell wasn't able to make any thoughtful jibes at the local news anchor, one of the easiest targets in the American landscape, you can bet he'll stick to mostly safe, broader comedy when it comes to the boys in blue. He's a stronger actor than this sometimes predictable material would suggest, which cannot be said about Wahlberg, who ranges from adequate to embarrassing as his partner.
That said, thankfully the movie is more than just the Will Ferrell show. Frequently and forgivingly it strays from its star, allowing the story and other characters to develop for much-needed variety. Some of the minor characters fare better than others. Michael Keaton's police captain is a smart and unpredictable variation on the heavy found in the type of movies this one lampoons, while Steve Coogan's villain and his associates grind through thin and familiar subplot territory.
If anything, “The Other Guys” is impressively overwritten, with gags, references and satire coming at the audience so rapidly it's difficult to catch it all. (I got all the TLC references, but the nod to “Dora the Explorer” shot over my head.) It's time to give up on Ferrell making groundbreaking comedy. The best we can hope for is that he doesn't act like one of his characters when creating the next dope. (PG-13) 107 min.