Adam McKay is not your average comedy director hack with a knack for creating comic chaos around his star muse—he’s not Jay Roach, or worse yet, Dennis Dugan. He and Will Ferrell resuscitated the fourth great cast of Saturday Night Live (McKay begged Lorne Michaels to hire Tina Fey to replace him as head writer), created the must-stream Funny or Die.com, and have created and produced some of this generation’s great comic films (think Harold Ramis, Ivan Reitman, and Bill Murray). Where Ramis/Reitman and Murray aimed their barbs at the middle class aspiration for elitism, McKay and Ferrell’s movies take on the great bourgeois threat: white male panic.
“Anchorman” is a millennial man’s romantic vision of the 70s, when men wore wooly mustaches, musky cologne, and stark blazers. In the world of “Anchorman,” men grabbed ass at the office, not text about soccer. If season eight of Mad Men follows Sterling Cooper Draper Price’s opening of a San Diego branch, one can see Ron Burgundy and Don Draper sharing scotch amongst many leather bound books. Today’s man—precisely the guy whose wife doesn’t care to on-demand yet another stupid Will Ferrell movie—makes that world up in his mind, usually after his Banana Republic polo gets stained with microbrew during the couples dog party. There’s a reason why the Kansas City Club (former members: Harry Truman, Ewing Kauffman) keeps a picture of Ron Burgundy on its rich mahogany bookshelves.
If “Anchorman” is about yuppies yearning for the world of Old Spice commercials, then McKay and Ferrell’s next film, “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” is about the rural and suburban conservative masculine panic that manifests itself in Nascar fandom, Bush voting, and truck nutz. “Talladega Nights” isn’t as fully a realized vision as “Anchorman,” but it still lands some blows: Sasha Baron Cohen’s threatened French dominance of NASCAR as a metaphor for the Freedom Fries era jingoism that pushed us to the Iraq War; the braindead sloganeering of NASCAR (“Shake and Bake, baby!”) as the rhetoric of Republican politics (Mushroom clouds! Death panels! Socialism!). Conceived when Karl Rove could still see permanent Republican majorities, Ricky Bobby is the epitome of pseudo-macho posturing of get-tough conservatives who haven’t ever had to get-tough about anything other than protecting their white American privilege.
“The Other Guys” is McKay and Ferrell’s satire of white panic in the age of Obama—specifically, white urbanites in the postracial age. Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson open the film as Detectives Highsmith and Danner, in a ridiculous only-in-the-movies cop chase sequence through the streets of New York to nab a dealer with a quarter-pound of weed. They are worshipped, of course, saluting the “little guys” doing paperwork that make it possible for them to “have the sex we don’t want to have.”
Enter Mark Wahlberg as Terry Hoitz, the put-out workaday cop stuck at his desk while the cool cops get all the glory. Wahlberg is the straight man, basically playing the Irish cop in every gritty Boston thriller from “Mystic River” to “Gone Baby Gone” to Wahlberg’s Oscar-nominated turn in “The Departed.” Wahlberg’s impotence in the face of black urban cool is not only funny (“I’m a peacock! Let me spread my wings!”), but a portrait of the fallen Irish and Italians political machines in America’s big cities. As The Sopranos documented, today’s mafia is fighting for scraps at the end of the empire. As the Boston Irish movies tell us, all that’s left of the old Irish glory are hollowed out working class neighborhoods full of drugs and abuse. Guys like Terry Hoitz missed out by at least two generations.
His partner is desk jockey Allen Gamble, playing the schlubby accountant turned detective. There’s no need to ruin any of the buddy cop gags, but there is one point worth mentioning here. McKay finishes the movie with a credits sequence outlining the fraud of Wall Street, and size of the bailout, etc. And there’s a sideplot involving the SEC, where the boys have to turn over some evidence, and Allen observes, “These guys are the best of the best…except they missed AIG. And Lehman Brothers…” Allen lists about ten major SEC screw ups—maybe the best joke in the movie.
The point should be—not to downplay the danger of street crime—that the most damaging criminals in this country are white collar. And to catch those guys, we need nerds like Allen on the beat. Big city cops like Terry just end up like Detective McNulty, chasing cocaine-powered windmills in a futile drug war. Highsmith and Danner are pure Hollywood. A more potent buddy cop satire would make this point by turning the chubby wuss Allen into the only effectual cop on the force.
Instead, MINOR SPOILER ALERT!
McKay kills off Highsmith and Danner twenty minutes into the movie. Not only does this limit the comedic choices (Samuel L. Jackson and The Rock intimidating beta males is funny), but there’s a whiff of…not racism, but a kind of artistic fear. The plot revolves around Terry and Allen (and rival beta partners, played by Damon Wayans, Jr. and Rob Riggle) aspiring to be kick-ass urban-cool cops. Again, if the underlying satire is about how these beta males are intimidated by urban masculinity, McKay himself seems to suffer from his own white male panic: He kills off a great joke as if he doesn’t have any idea how to handle two awesomely funny black actors.
The answer is easy: Just do what you do with Steve Carrell and John C. Reilly—send SLJ and The Rock into the scene and see what happens. But for the life of me, I can’t figure out why McKay kills these guys off. Yes, their death scene is funny, but you could have easily moved it to the end of the movie and merged it with the SEC satire. That joke would have been about the irrelevance of these characters to the actual work of fighting crime. Instead, the movie devolves into a really funny version of “Cop Out.” If only Ron Burgundy had been at Highsmith and Danner’s press conference, then we’d be on to something.