The difference between a good movie and a good comedy

My life is in a constant state of upheaval right now. Working, writing, moving—there’s a lot going on. On top of that, a small gig I’ve had over the last few years editing the fiction section of an arts journal has grown exponentially this year after someone said something nice about the publication on the internets. So now add a couple hundred stories to read to the list of crap I have to do. Hopefully this will all settle down soon and I can get back to posting 2-3 times a week on here. Anyway, this past weekend found me desperately seeking an escape so of course I headed to the movies, and this time I wanted to see something funny. I just wanted to laugh, so I bought a ticket for The Other Guys.

Was it a good movie? No. Does that matter? No.

When it comes to movies, I’m all about expectations. So many critics, pros and armchair types alike, tend to judge movies on a scale of Ishtar to Citizen Kane, as if every movie is meant to fit the same mold. That’s just not true. There are basically two types of films—those that are meant to make money and those intended to bring home hardware—but there is some wiggle room between those very broad definitions. And these days, the Oscars wouldn’t be the Oscars if there wasn’t a moneymaker shut out of the awards to everyone’s chagrin. It’s a fluid system, but at the end of the day, each movie has its own set of expectations and I before I sit down in a theater, I ask myself what I expect of this movie.

All I expected from The Other Guys was that it makes me laugh, and it did, for two hours straight. There was no grand plan for The Other Guys beyond, “Make Columbia money.” And it did. So on that scale, The Other Guys wins. It was genuinely funny. I am a huge Will Ferrell fan, so I am predisposed to like his movies, but a Sunday matinee crowd (read: old people and families) laughed along with me. It’s juvenile humor, yes, but it works every time. Think what you want of Ferrell—the man commits to the bit. He also brings out the best in his costars. Mark Wahlberg is not the most likely scene partner for Ferrell. Not as good an actor as he thinks he is, but better than people usually credit him for, Wahlberg has a couple traits which make him a decent comic actor, but he also has drawbacks. For instance, his character, frustrated cop Terry Hoitz, spent a lot of time yelling and I enjoyed little of it. Wahlberg is most effective when allowed to relax and deliver quieter, smaller moments. Unfortunately, he was the crazy one to Ferrell’s straight man, and I think The Other Guys made a mistake there. But he had Ferrell to push him through and playing against such a skilled sketch comedian, everyone looks better.

Director Adam McKay (Step Brothers, Talladega Nights) still cannot shoot action sequences (or any scene involving movement, really) in anything resembling an acceptable manner, but I get the feeling he knows this and is beginning to play with it for sight gags. One scene has Wahlberg pulling the classic action movie shooting-two-guns-while-sliding move down a conference table. The first angle is from a floor camera and you can almost see Wahlberg scootching himself along the table, but the next angle is overhead and the wire work drags Wahlberg along efficiently. Clunky editing does nothing to clean that sequence up and it doesn’t seem to bother McKay at all. If done self-consciously, it is almost funny that a movie using cop movie clichés for comedy would feature such a half-assed classic action movie move.

Also not bothering McKay at all is the presence of Damon Wayans, Jr. (Dance Flick), but it bothers me tremendously. The only Wayans I have ever enjoyed is Keenan Ivory—the rest coast his name. Wayans, Jr. is almost intolerable, and it’s a special shame that Rob Riggle (Step Brothers) is wasted as his screen partner. Riggle tries but Wayans, Jr.’s screechiness kills their bits every time. Casting thumbs up on Michael Keaton, though—he really gets a lot done with straight-faced “aw hell” moments—and Steve Coogan (Tropic Thunder, Hamlet 2), who really really deserves a star vehicle of his own.

So it would seem there is a lot wrong with The Other Guys, too much for one to like it, even. But I never expected this to be a good movie. I just expected it to be funny. And Will Ferrell, as per usual, is funny. He makes everyone around him funny. The bits and sight gags were funny. There were some memorable funny lines (“You should have shot A-Rod” got huge laughs). And sometimes, with comedies, the things that make it a bad film are precisely the things that make it a good comedy. Comedy is about breaking rules.

The first thing you learn as a comedian, be it stand-up, sketch, or improv, is a laundry list of rules, the last of which is, “Break these rules as necessary”. A really successful bit starts by establishing a pattern and then delivers when that pattern is broken. Comic movies work from the base that general knowledge of movies is the pattern, and the humor comes when those established keys are torn down. In The Other Guys there is a solid bit with an explosion which leaves Ferrell and Wahlberg writhing on the ground, screaming about how they can’t hear and how painful is the concussion from the blast. Ferrell rants about the Hollywood trope of badass action stars walking calmly away from explosions and how impossible that would really be. The Other Guys really does nothing to establish this as a dynamic scene—it’s a standard explosion followed by a static overhead crane shot—but it counts on the audience knowing of exactly the sort of scenes Ferrell rails against. And we laugh because we do and we’re in on the joke.

I know Will Ferrell isn’t for everyone. Plenty of you will tell me he sucks, he isn’t funny, it’s all fart jokes. That’s cool. That’s your opinion. But if you’ve been enjoying Paul Rudd, Steve Carrell, John C. Reilly, Danny McBride, or Zach Galifianakis in movies these last few years, you owe Ferrell your thanks. He cultivated and promoted all of them.

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3 thoughts on “The difference between a good movie and a good comedy

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  3. bellafiga

    I haven’t seen this yet, but I WILL! Because I wasn’t a fan of ferrell. I at the time found him obtuse! BUT then i saw anchorman and it all changed. I have talked my BFF into every single one of his movies at the cost of losing a friendship. Because he does it! And well, he does the awkward, loser schtick without needing sympathy. Step Brothers BLEW my ass away because the line” you sound like fergie mixed with jesus” was just so fucking random and obscure that i quoted it for months (mostly to no one that got it).

    I find that ferrell is a comics comedian. Because if he can make the folks around him(and that’s saying A LOT ) laugh then you know! You just KNOW it’s funny!

    More Cowbell indeed!

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