Here’s my favorite joke: Three men are asked to name Man’s greatest invention. The first fellow says, “Fire.” The second says, “The wheel.” The third volunteers, “The thermos.”
Puzzled, his questioners ask why.
“Because,” Guy No. 3 confidently replies, “it keeps things hot and it keeps things cold.”
His questioners continue to look confused.
“How does it know?” supplies Guy No. 3.
That joke always makes me laugh. It sums up the meaning of life: “How does it know?”
You, however, may be scratching your head, just like the joke’s questioners.
Humor is subjective. I heard a story on NPR last year reporting the Holy Grail at Netflix was to develop an algorithm that could correctly predict whether a customer would like “Napoleon Dynamite.”
That 2004 deadpan indie comedy, more than any other movie, either tickles your funny bone or leaves you stupefied, wondering what all the fuss is about. (If anyone at Netflix cares, I’m in the “finds it funny” camp.)
Some people are partial to physical humor. Show a character running into a wall, falling into a vat of cement or getting whacked in the nuts, and these moviegoers are howling. Call it the Three Stooges school of comedy.
Others prefer their humor more cerebral. They laugh at word play, riffs on contemporary culture and character-based comedy. Think of Woody Allen in his “Annie Hall” period.
“The Other Guys,” the new buddy cop comedy from co-writer-director Adam McKay (“Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy”) that’s out to satirize cop films, pretty much splits the difference, trying to keep a foot in both camps.
The problem with this wide-leg comedy stance is that the movie doesn’t provide enough of a base, i.e. plot, to stand on.
Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg play a mismatched pair of New York City police detectives. Ferrell is a nerdy, numbers-crunching, Prius driver, while Wahlberg is an intense, tightly wound tough guy who yells at everyone all the time.
Neither man’s career is going anywhere: Ferrell, because he prefers to sit at his desk filling out paperwork, and Wahlberg because he accidentally shot Yankee great Derek Jeter. (“You should have shot A-Rod,” another cop tells him in one the movie’s better jokes.)
When the department’s two attention-hogging star cops (Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson, hamming it up and having a blast) die early on, Wahlberg prods Ferrell that they should fill in the vacuum, going from being “the other guys” in the squad room to Gotham’s new hero cops.
It’s a decent set-up, but there’s not enough follow-through. Our two would-be heroes pursue a business mogul criminal (Steve Coogan) who is trying to swindle investors. But the movie’s heart isn’t really in this plot, only periodically checking back on it in between comic riffs.
“Other Guys” is more interested in the interaction between Wahlberg and Ferrell and turning upside down movie detective clichés. Ferrell gives a committed and effective performance here, turning in his best work since “Anchorman” and “Stranger Than Fiction.” Wahlberg, who is so much better in supporting roles than in leads, mostly just yells.
Happily, though, more jokes hit than fall flat. And, on a hot, humid summer day when the air conditioning is blasting in a movie theater, that’s good enough.
What’s funny may be subjective, but it’s also subject to seasonal affect.