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As I wrote when Avatar came out, it seems futile to me for a filmmaker to try to embed an anti-corporate message in a film whose very financing and distribution are dependent on corporate largess. The bells and whistles of mainstream film production and marketing tend to overwhelm whatever message in the film runs counter to the complacent passivity that we’ve learned to ingest along with our popcorn. Nonetheless, give credit to The Other Guys for trying to drop some education about our current financial mess into what’s an otherwise deliberately absurd and silly Will Ferrell comedy.
Director/co-writer Adam McKay saves most of the critique for the end credits (embedded above), about which I’ve written extensively in this post at Moviefone. But he also gets a few subtler digs in during the film itself, in which NYPD detectives Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg pursue a Bernie Madoff-like Ponzi schemer, played by Steve Coogan. (Spoilers follow.) Coogan’s character is also pursued by institutional investors who’ve lost billions, and who’ll stop at nothing, no matter how violent or illegal, to get their money back. Coogan is forced to find a new pigeon to make up the losses; that pigeon turns out to be the NYPD pension fund. Ferrell and Wahlberg foil the scheme and save their pensions, but Coogan’s biggest institutional client gets its money back anyway through a government bailout because it’s deemed too big to fail. So instead of looting one small union, the company gets to steal from every taxpayer in America. (End spoilers.) There’s also a bit where Ferrell meets with the Securities and Exchange Commission and casually rattles off a list of all the big Wall Street ripoffs the SEC failed to avert over the last decade, from Enron to WorldCom to Madoff to AIG. This got a big laugh from the audience I saw the movie with. People may not grasp the details of how they’ve been screwed over, but they know that someone was asleep as the foxes raided the henhouse over and over.
Some of the details of how that happened are laid out in the statistics of the cute, Powerpoint-y presentation during the end credits. (For those who really don’t get the hint, McKay has Rage Against the Machine loudly covering Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm” on the soundtrack.) I don’t know how many people will stay to watch this segment, and how many of those will grasp what the presentation has to say, or how many will make the connection between the giant scam they’ve seen in the movie and how their own pockets have been picked in real life. But The Other Guys did open at No. 1 at the box office last weekend, which means about 5 million people were exposed to McKay’s hidden seminar on white-collar malfeasance.
The real test of effectiveness may be how much conservative outrage The Other Guys generates. I predict a number of articles like this recent Wall Street Journal feature that wonders why Hollywood so often casts poor, misunderstood capitalism as the villain. (It’s a fascinating piece, full of grand failures to understand how truly pro-corporate and pro-consumerist Hollywood is, or how genre works, or how artists in Hollywood relate to the conglomerates that make their work possible, or why our Christianized culture doesn’t consider Randian selfishness a virtue.) Let’s face it, after the BP oil spill, the massive layoffs that have led to bigger CEO bonus checks, and the grand-scale looting on Wall Street that’s depicted fairly explicitly in The Other Guys, corporate capitalism doesn’t need Hollywood to make it a villain; it’s doing that just fine on its own.