Actor/co-writer Will Ferrell and director/co-writer Adam McKay have a habit of making movies that promise better ones. Anchorman is a broad absurdist comedy with shards of gender resentment; the picture seems to want to blossom into something more ambitious than its’ already-assured status as the next Caddyshack, but it’s ultimately more or less content to color within the lines. Talladega Nights is more clearly split in sensibility; there’s that long, much-discussed Sunday dinner scene with the crass product placements and the shouting and the ridiculous Jesus outbursts; and there’s those occasional intrusions into the film by (pretend) sponsors. Step Brothers is the most rambunctious, insane, and complete of the duo’s projects, but it never quite finds a target or a focus (clearly partially the point) even if it is still one of the better mainstream comedies in the last several years. A movie, I might add, with which I completely missed the point of the first time out.
The general preoccupation of these movies, besides creating varying ever-escalating opportunities for Ferrell and company to blow their tops, is the hostility that men and women tamper down in order to function in society. The point of these pictures is that that hostility is unleashed; Ferrell and his ensembles, relying on considerable improvisation, wallow in the confusion and self-consciousness and self-absorption that consumerist society encourages. This is most apparent in Step Brothers, with the intentionally overt references to the Cheesecake Factory, to Dane Cook, to Bed, Bath and Beyond. The happy ending of Step Brothers, which I initially took to be straight-forward, is, it now seems to me, meant to be ironic. Ferrell and John C. Reilly are delusional losers who, near the end, pick a different delusion in order to function more conventionally in mass society. Yet, every successful character (most memorably Ferrell’s brother’s wife) is painted as deranged and miserable, with a clock ticking over their heads toward the inevitable implosion.
The Other Guys is Ferrell and McKay’s most successfully conventional movie (though Ferrell isn’t officially credited as screenwriter this time). This movie proves that these guys can, from start to finish, make something that looks like a mainstream all-star movie, with three clearly defined acts with action beats that, while not especially memorable, are at least in league with most of what constitutes action these days. The picture is more clearly “blocked”, with more mind paid toward shots looking like shots. There’s less turn-the-camera-on-see-what-we-get spontaneity this time, most of the jokes play as if they were scripted, then rehearsed, then delivered.
Yet again, The Other Guys suggests potential for a movie that doesn’t quite materialize. The picture is initially meant as a parody of buddy cop action movies, a premise that’s, of course, as unoriginal by now as the subject of the parody itself. The Other Guys opens with a predictably loud, hyperbolic chase, with two rowdy badasses (Samuel L. Jackson and The Rock) smashing and grabbing and destroying half the city to bring down what turns out to be minor perps. Most of the first act is awash in promising jokes that don’t quite land their targets. Jackson and The Rock are too obviously posed as fascist hunks, particularly Jackson, who is entirely incapable of a performance these days that isn’t pitched to the rafters of a theater somewhere on one of the outer rings of Saturn. At first, you think that the scale here – the largest McKay has worked on – has mooted the team’s sensibility. Everything is played obvious and too buddy-buddy, including the casting of the supporting cops, which includes that one seemingly senseless, brain dead lug from the terrible tazer scene in The Hangover.
Then Jackson and The Rock leave the picture (in another promising gag that doesn’t quite pay off) and we see that the buddy cop thing is misdirection. The Other Guys are Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg; one a dweeb content with the paperwork (seen as the bitch work), the other a bad boy cop himself disgraced by a screw up (yet another promising joke that doesn’t quite work). These misfits find themselves with a case that could potentially sweep them into the limelight, to the place once occupied by Jackson and the Rock, and it is here that the movie somewhat takes off. The Other Guys is, like the other McKay/Ferrell movies, about repression and barely-checked outrage at the status quo of society, it is about our media addictions, with jokes on the inferiority complex of online writers, the physical discrepancies between people who look like Ferrell (a lot of us) and people who look like Wahlberg (not nearly as many), and the humiliating jobs that supposed bad boy cops have to take on the side (another Bed/Bath reference), among others. The picture, in short, is meant as a parody of the desperation the recent economic collapse has caused, a parody of the fame/regular guy caste system. (It is certainly no coincidence that the villain, played by Steve Coogan, is a Bernie Madoff variation, or that one of the best, most uncomfortable, jokes involves one of his henchmen supposedly killing himself.)
We see what the new found McKay (kinda) polish could build toward: contrast; a picture that opens conventionally and slowly unleashes the old Ferrell madness, which would seem crazier with a normalcy effectively established as counterpoint. Sadly, The Other Guys, a PG-13, never quite goes far enough; you keep counting the great-on-paper jokes that should be allowed to mutate into something more outrageous and thematically complete. Ferrell’s character turns out to be a hidden madman, a great idea that, again, gives the actor contrast, a starting point, a course. Ferrell is a dwarfed regular guy, a regular guy with dimensions of survival and self-preservation and canniness that Wahlberg doesn’t grasp. Ferrell, in a gag that does pay off, has an inexplicably beautiful wife (Eva Mendes), as well as a parade of ex-lovers who aren’t over him. The idea goes with the Jackson/Rock riffs in the beginning, as well as with the businessmen who are screwing everyone over – this is a little guy empowerment thing, a somewhat self-loathing parody of a guy enjoying the baubles of celebrity with nary an explanation (I wish they hadn’t delivered an explanation at all, but that joke works too.) The partners, over the course of the movie, switch places: Ferrell is the sexual aggressor, Wahlberg is the emasculated one with a woman he can’t quite get.
The picture is eventually a tribute to the anonymous working-class, and while that jives with everything that comes before, you wish that Ferrell and McKay hadn’t been so forgiving. You wish that a great sex joke between Mendes and Ferrell, with him screwing her while she’s dressed as her mother, would be allowed to grow wilder and wilder. You wish that Ferrell and Wahlberg’s wonderful performances had been allowed to reach full lunacy. You wish that Michael Keaton, who is every bit as good as you hope as the police captain, had been used in more original ways. You want, after four movies worth of implication, for these guys to throw the pop-cultural hand grenade that they seem to be capable of throwing. The Other Guys, still amusing, at least shows that McKay and Ferrell now know how to dress a wolf up in sheep’s clothing.
The Eclipse is an easy movie to overlook, but I wouldn’t recommend it, it has a modesty that is becoming and ultimately rather poignant. That has a lot to do with Ciarán Hinds and writer-director Conor McPherson’s treatment of him. The Eclipse is one of those movies where a bereaved man mostly performs quiet tasks while being quietly bereaved. The difference between this and any number of “mysterious tragedy long ago” pictures is Hinds’ containment, his refusal to pity himself. Hinds’ character, Michael Farr, lost his wife sometime in the past. He’s also a failed writer working a visiting-writers’ workshop in a small seaside Irish town; which means he also has to weather the casual superiority and entitlement of the visiting writers. Michael doesn’t pull any of the tricks you expect him to: he doesn’t pester the writers to look at his work, he doesn’t hint, he doesn’t cry in his room once he’s all alone at the end of the night in order to assure that we get it. He tends to his work, he tends to his daughter, and you can tell that, to him, his dull sort of bored lack of happiness is a relief from the pronounced unhappiness of his past. You grow to admire Michael, who has moved beyond notions of self-entitlement. He’s bravely parred of expectation.
And that pulls you toward him, you sense that he’s reached a point that deserves reprieve. The picture eventually becomes a kind of ghost story, with Michael seeking a visiting supernatural writer’s advice, and McPherson’s quiet, calm, command of mood takes you in. This is a supernatural picture with a sense of the every day, so the appearances of the ghosts feel like an actual intrusion, which is unusual for most horror films announcing themselves as horror with a capital H. Michael Farr is one of the most purely likeable characters I’ve seen in a movie this year; and, in the irresistible ending, he gets to, as a Peckinpah character once said, “enter his house justified”.
Everyone in The Expendables tries to enter their house justified. This is a Sylvester Stallone movie, which means there’s a lot of lame self-congratulatory humor disguised as self-deprecation. You know this picture by now: it is a Dirty Dozen animal with a bunch of past-their-prime stars invited back for another round of back-slapping, knife-throwing and gun-firing: in addition to Stallone, there’s Mickey Rourke, Eric Roberts, Dolph Lundgren, Steve Austin, Randy Couture and, for relevance, the younger Jason Statham and Jet Li. In an exceptionally lame cameo, there’s also Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis.
I will be forthcoming: I could only make it through an hour of this thing. If you feel that should disqualify me from weighing in, then I understand and hope you still steer clear of this movie in case you haven’t already checked it out anyway. I am somewhat usually sympathetic to Stallone’s shtick, I admire his clever ability to stay in the game, but The Expendables is one of his worst pictures…ever. (Yes, I’ve seen Cobra.) Dull, ineptly staged, Stallone takes himself too seriously to stage a simple blood bath, he wants you to feel for these cliches, to miss the meat-head, sexist, politically pathetic action movies of the 1980s. There are a few moments that are passable in comparison to the rest of the picture: Rourke gets to do his bit where he rambles on for minutes about nothing in a way that’s ludicrous and still sort of cool. (It’s his version of Brando’s late career nonsense authority.) Statham, the only real actor in a prominent role (Rourke, from what I can tell, is just a walk-on), somehow convinces you that this somehow means something to him. But this picture is the pits, a condescending effort by a rich star to throw red meat to what he sees as his beer-swilling rube audience. The Expendables are faux working-class.