The Other Guys, released 10 years ago this month, is a supremely stupid film, and I say that with affection. Written by Adam McKay (Anchorman) and Will Ferrell, and directed by McKay, the buddy-cop spoof stars Ferrell as Allen Gamble, a soft-spoken NYPD forensic accountant, and Mark Wahlberg as Terry Hoitz, his hot-headed partner. Allen isn’t taken seriously because of his dorky, mild-mannered personality, and Terry is a laughing stock after accidentally shooting Derek Jeter during the World Series. When Hoitz and Gamble arrest billionaire David Ershon (Steve Coogan) over a scaffolding violation — and end up discovering that he’s running a Ponzi scheme — hijinks ensue.
Ferrell and Wahlberg both commit hard to what makes their characters funny, and their chemistry is weirdly perfect. Most of the jokes stem from their back-and-forth bickering or direct parodies of the action genre, like when Hoitz and Gamble fall to the ground in agony after a building explodes behind them. (“When they flew the Millennium Falcon outside of the Death Star and it was followed by the explosion, that was bullshit!” “Don’t you dare badmouth Star Wars, that was all accurate!”). My favorite recurring bit is that their captain (Michael Keaton), attempting to impart sage words of wisdom, keeps accidentally quoting iconic lyrics by 90s R&B girl group TLC, telling Terry, “Don’t go chasing waterfalls,” and, “You gotta creep … creep.” When it’s pointed out to him, he has no idea what they’re talking about.
The fourth and least widely beloved McKay and Ferrell team-up, The Other Guys shares the gleefully sophomoric sensibility of their more popular collaborations Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, and Step Brothers. They’re all full of goofy, juvenile, profane, and borderline offensive jokes. Their movies have made “Go fuck yourself, San Diego” and “It’s the fucking Catalina Wine Mixer” into millennial parlance. But where the former three are mostly just silly for the sake of silliness, The Other Guys goes a bit deeper. In hindsight, it marks a turning point where McKay started dedicating his career to exposing the ways in which powerful systems fuck over ordinary people.
In the midst of a long-overdue reckoning around police brutality, revisiting movies about cops is a fraught proposition in 2020. And though The Other Guys doesn’t go full ACAB, McKay and his co-writer Chris Henchy avoid traps of “copaganda” in spoofing the authorities. The pair make fun of police departments wasting resources, and portray the majority of officers as incompetent and/or obnoxiously macho. The Rock and Samuel L. Jackson briefly appear as NYPD hot shots who cause millions of dollars in property damage making a low-level drug arrest, and then die by jumping off a building because they thought they could “aim for the bushes” and be fine. Ferrell’s Allen doesn’t understand why everyone else on the force idolizes them. On top of a scathing look at the valorization of cops, the main villains of the movie are David Ershon and his high-powered investors who gambled with — and lost — billions of dollars of other people’s money.
The Other Guys was released in 2010, in the wake of the 2007-2008 global financial crisis and two years after Bernie Madoff was arrested for pulling off the biggest financial fraud in U.S. history. The character of David Ershon was based on Madoff, and he comes off as a privileged idiot. He watches pirate-themed porn in his penthouse office and bribes Hoitz and Gamble with tickets to Broadway shows. It’s supposed to be ridiculous that this guy is running an international corporation. Rewatching The Other Guys in 2020, David Ershon reminded me of Billy McFarland, the mastermind behind the doomed Fyre Festival. Like McFarland, Ershon is more stupid and reckless than intentionally malicious — he made too many promises to too many people. By making fun of Ershon’s incompetence, McKay makes it clear that scammers like Madoff and McFarland are both the products of a broken system and its cause.
The end credits of The Other Guys bluntly states McKay’s more satirical thesis. As the crew members’ names roll, a series of punchy graphics explain how a Ponzi scheme works, how much money Madoff stole ($65 billion), and how much money the U.S. government spent on bank bailouts following the economic crash ($700 billion), among other alarming statistics (73 AIG employees received post-bailout bonuses, the 2010 average salary ratio between a CEO and an average employee was 319:1). While The Other Guys is still very much a goofy comedy that serves as a vehicle for Will Ferrell to ham it up, it’s also got a more defined point of view than Step Brothers’ “adult children who live at home is fertile ground to make jokes in.”
Today, The Other Guys stands out as the fulcrum of Adam McKay’s modern career. After 2013’s Anchorman 2, which had been in production since 2008, McKay took on The Big Short. On paper, the film was a sharp departure for the director: Based on Michael Lewis’ 2010 book of the same name, The Big Short sheds light on how the U.S. housing bubble triggered the global financial crisis. Christian Bale stars as Michael Burry, a hedge fund manager who figured out that the housing market was unstable and placed massive bets against it. Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling play fictionalized versions of bankers who also capitalized on Burry’s analysis, with Brad Pitt as a retired trader who helps a pair of young investors do the same. The gamble worked out for McKay, earning him an Oscar nomination for Best Director and a win for Best Adapted Screenplay.
The Big Short was a natural progression for McKay’s outrage at the financial crisis, and it not only shares themes with The Other Guys — powerful people threw billions of dollars around without thinking about the lives attached to the numbers — but even some similar techniques. The Big Short intercuts clips of Margot Robbie in a bathtub or Selena Gomez playing blackjack with economist Richard Thaler, where they explain complicated financial concepts directly to the viewer. The flashy bits blur the line between narrative film and documentary, and feels very much like an extension of The Other Guys’ credit sequence, which features little stick figures with golden parachutes or dressed up like robber barons.
Since The Big Short, McKay has continued to produce the kind of bawdy, R-rated comedy he made a name for himself with — McKay served as producer on another Ferrell-Wahlberg teamup, Daddy’s Home, as well as the wonderfully raunchy female-led coming-of-age story, Booksmart — but he’s focused his directorial efforts on more serious (but still funny) projects. He followed up The Big Short with 2018’s Vice, a similarly structured film that serves as a scathing indictment of vice president Dick Cheney. He directed the pilot of Succession, HBO’s drama about a cutthroat family media empire, for which he also serves as executive producer through Gary Sanchez Productions, the company he founded with Will Ferrell. (McKay and Ferrell have since parted ways as production partners, and have both left the company.) In 2018 McKay sold a movie to Legendary Pictures based on Elizabeth Holmes and her allegedly fraudulent blood-testing company, Theranos.
The throughline for McKay is keeping an eye on America’s inequitable systems of power. But that eye didn’t immediately find a sharp focus on prestige, Oscar-winning fare. It blinked open 10 years ago with a stupid buddy-cop parody that features Mark Wahlberg enthusiastically shouting that he’s a peacock and you’ve gotta let him fly. The Other Guys may be neither the funniest nor the most critically acclaimed entry in Adam McKay’s filmography, but it’s the key to understanding his trajectory as a director intent on exposing corrupt forces.
Also I lied — it is the funniest.
The Other Guys is available to stream on Netflix.