The reason somebody gets to be a big-screen comedy star would appear to be fairly basic: He makes a lot of people laugh. But comedy is a funny business. Even when it's silly and bent, a blast of pure popcorn goofiness, it doesn't have to be just silly; it can express something quirky and resonant about the comedian in question and, by extension, about us. Will Ferrell took an unfair lashing last summer for Land of the Lost (the movie was bad, but not nearly the catastrophe it was made out to be, and Ferrell, doing a naughty kiddie picture in the tradition of Elf, had his moments). You can feel him react to the spanking he got from the media in the flair and ambition of The Other Guys, a nerd-out-of-water destructo action comedy starring Ferrell as a New York police bureaucrat named Allen Gamble who's a ridiculously mild and persnickety fussbudget an eager nobody who works as a paper pusher and, more than that, likes it. The movie is as antic and raucous and fun as any of the star's previous screen outings, only this one has a surprisingly personal flavor. It's Ferrell's richest riff yet on the comedy of conflicted aggression.
Allen has never fired a gun, and doesn't want to; he has never walked a traffic beat. He's the furthest thing from P.K. Highsmith (Samuel L. Jackson) and Christopher Danson (Dwayne Johnson), the two rapaciously dirty-minded bad-boy supercops who open the film with a nifty satiric let's-trash-the-city chase sequence. Instead, Allen is one of the ''other guys,'' the unheroic desk-jockey schlubs who stand around in the background clad in ugly plaid jackets. Within the locker-room atmosphere of the precinct house, he's not a law enforcer. He's not really a cop at all.
The movie is about how this officious wimp, with his pudgy-cheeked complacency and aviator-framed glasses, gets shoved onto the streets and into the world of real guns and real crime. Mark Wahlberg plays his testy, conventional, roughneck partner, Terry Hoitz, who got sidelined and drew this short straw of a detective buddy because he had the misfortune of shooting New York Yankee Derek Jeter while on duty. The Other Guys is almost a recognizably gritty genre picture, complete with bullet spray, Sidney Lumet gunmetal lighting, and a Wall Street villain (Steve Coogan) who embodies the sins of our time with a relative absence of cheek. All of that grounds the movie and makes it funnier.
Not that Ferrell has left his surrealist-prankster side at home. The Other Guys gets you chuckling at the little details of Allen's stick-up-the-butt patheticness, like the way he hums while typing, or argues with Terry about how a school of tuna could whip a lion, or blasts Little River Band CDs in his sad, dinky red Prius. (Terry: ''I feel like we're literally driving around in a vagina.'') A few of the jokes are sly, many are quite obvious, but what knits the laughs together is the nearly confessional conviction with which Ferrell delivers them. He's not playing just another geek idiot as, say, Rob Schneider does. He digs into some elemental side of himself, a side that craves order and niceness and civility, that shrinks from danger and violence. Allen is such a straight arrow that he might have stepped out of the 1950s; he doesn't even realize that his wife (Eva Mendes) is a total hottie. But that's also a tip-off that he's got a secret, suppressed raunchy side, a big-pimpin' alter ego named Gator who starts to ooze out, to uproarious effect, as the movie goes on.
Teaming up once again with director Adam McKay (Anchorman, Talladega Nights), Ferrell makes Allen another of his classic divided personalities, only now he draws back from caricature at least, more than when he played a blowhard egomaniac like Ron Burgundy. In The Other Guys, Ferrell cuts down on the stylized hysteria, and he doesn't run around with his belly hanging out. As an actor, he's closer here to Peter Sellers or the early Woody Allen; he does obsessive riffs on being an insanely cautious man in a culture that prizes control. Allen is a schmo who winds up in the middle of his own action thriller. When a bomb blows out a storefront, he doesn't dive ahead of it, hero-style he gets blasted and lies on the ground, shouting, ''I need an MRI! There's no way I don't have soft-tissue damage right now!'' The Other Guys is aimed at all of us out there who long for excitement yet cling to safety because we're more desk jockey than supercop ourselves. It's a comedy of manhood for the age of emasculation. A-