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Dumb and dumberer: (l-r) Wahlberg and Ferrell in The Other Guys.

Buddy Buddy

By Shawn Stone

The Other Guys

Directed by Adam McKay

Whether or not the American moviegoing public was crying out for yet another over-the-top parody of the classic buddy cop films of the last couple of decades is immaterial. Adam McKay, who directed the funniest (and most outrageous) Will Ferrell comedies (Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and Talladega Nights), has again teamed with the comedian to give us something hilarious—and strange.

Ferrell is Allen, a police accountant, and Mark Wahlberg is his partner Terry, a supercop busted down to desk detective for an unfortunate, unauthorized weapon discharge. They’re the titular “other guys,” who will have to “step up” when the real guys fail.

In this case, the “real guys” are a couple of trash-talking, gun-crazy detectives played with extreme relish by Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson. This humor is where the film is strongest: Macho cop culture is mercilessly parodied, even ridiculed. A support group for police forced to discharge their weapons turns into a wonderfully offensive cock-measuring contest; one of the biggest laughs in the picture occurs when a couple of cops get killed, and their funeral turns into another opportunity for black comedy.

And The Other Guys is set in New York City. Somebody get Glenn Beck a handkerchief: Irony lives, and the so-called “9/12 spirit” is well and truly dead.

Ferrell is most effective when his character isn’t aware what a complete freak he is. That’s the way it is here. Of course this buttoned-down desk jockey had an unsavory—and wholly unconvincing—criminal career in his college days. Of course this pudgy dork would have a conventionally “hot” wife (Eva Mendes), and relentlessly deny that she’s anything more than “cute.” Of course he’d find a way to turn humiliation—his superior (Michael Keaton, making the most of a smallish part) taking away his real gun and giving him a wooden replacement—into an asset. Yes, Wahlberg gets his share of the laughs, but if Ferrell’s character weren’t on the mark, the film wouldn’t work.

There’s a plot involving financial shenanigans of the type that wrecked our economy, and the filmmakers would like to make some points about bailouts and white-collar criminality. This is fine as far as it goes, but is nowhere near as funny as the movie’s inspired nonsense, like the gang of hobosexuals who defile Allen’s Prius with their grubby orgies.

The Other Guys isn’t a masterpiece—really, Anchorman is the gold standard for this kind of humor—but I laughed all the way through the film. And a laugh is nothing to sneeze at.

 

Meth America

Winter’s Bone

Directed by Debra Granik

Winter’s Bone reminds the jaded film critic what was originally appealing and vital about independent cinema. It presents a gritty, everyday story of poverty, crime and murder, which is beautifully performed by skilled actors you’ve never seen before. And there’s nothing twee about the characters or their emotions, and absolutely nothing ironic about the use of violence. For example, there’s a chilling scene, late in the picture, in which a gang discusses a bloodied character’s fate. It goes something like this:

“What are we gonna do with you?”

“Kill me?”

“That’s been discussed.”

The last line is not played for laughs; the matter-of-fact manner in which it’s spoken is chilling.

The film is centered on 17-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) and her family. Ree is the head of the household by default. Her mother is mentally ill, and her never-seen father Jessup is a bail-jumping meth cook facing a long stretch in jail; she must raise her much younger brother and sister. It’s never explicitly stated that she’s a dropout, but the longing she manifests in an early scene when she takes her brother and sister to school is haunting.

The plot is straight out of 19th- century melodrama—and so is the poverty. Ree’s father has jumped bail, and the family’s house and land are the collateral. She has one week to find him before all is lost. The journey is a dark one, as she faces not-so-veiled threats and actual violence. But as she tells her brother (when he blanches at gutting a squirrel), there are some fears you just have to get past.

Lawrence is astonishing, balancing youthful vulnerability with a steely determination. The entire cast is impressive, too, especially John Hawkes as her wounded, but still dangerous, uncle Teardrop.

Winter’s Bone is set in the Ozarks, but it really could be anywhere in rural America; change the accent and it could be New York’s Southern Tier or Adirondacks. The filmmakers get the gnawing nature of rural poverty just right: The cobbled-together, hardscrabble houses that don’t keep out the cold; the abandoned, rusty vehicles that are used for parts; the suspicious, angry people with guns a-plenty. Crucially, Winter’s Bone shows us the heart of the contemporary rural criminal landscape, where that abandoned shack on that gravel road is as likely to hide a meth lab as a bunch of rusting crap. (And it’s probably being watched by a very well-armed dude.)

Ree and her family may eventually find some measure of hope, but the filmmakers don’t sugarcoat the ending. Rural America is still on dope, and in deep trouble.

—Shawn Stone


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