The Decline of the Will Ferrell Comedy Franchise?

Wahlberg and Ferrell, possibly headed to Red Robin?
Macall Polay
The Dinner: Bacon cheeseburger, at Red Robin, Pier 55.

The Movie: The Other Guys, at Pacific Place (600 Pine St.).

The Screenplate: Red Robin was once a fairly beloved local burger joint, founded in 1969 by Gerry Kingen, but it grew into a mall-oriented national franchise; and when the original location off Eastlake closed earlier this year, few really missed the place. The fun was gone. Will Ferrell was once a fairly beloved breakout comedian on Saturday Night Live; then he became a huge film star in vehicles like Old School and Elf. More recently however, in films like Talladega Nights and Step Brothers, he's begun to seem like a comedy franchise that's expanded too fast and spread itself too thin. With The Other Guys, that trend continues. So today, which holds up better--Ferrell or Red Robin...?

Walking into the waterfront Red Robin is a bit like visiting the multiplex at a shopping mall. The Argosy sightseeing cruise boats disgorge tourists at the same pier, many of whom wander with you--wearing shorts and T-shirts--into Red Robin. There, the lobby is decorated with old movie posters and blown-up covers from vintage sci-fi mags. Everything is bright and loud, and the youthful servers are like the teen ticket takers at the cinema. Almost every surface is covered with a colorful sign of some kind, much as a multiplex lobby is packed with ads and cardboard displays for coming movies. This is suburbia is all its glory, incongruous on the Seattle waterfront, perhaps, but it's precisely where Will Ferrell came from. He knows these people well, and when he lampoons suburbanites, it's done with a certain affectionate familiarity. You could imagine him bursting with energy at the Red Robin reception station: "Hi, my name is Will! And I am super-psyched to be your server at Red Robin!"

Instead, however, he goes the meek doormat route in The Other Guys. Or at least he begins the movie that way (there's a wild side that must inevitably be released). On the NYPD, his Detective Gamble is a forensic accountant who's never fired his gun. Naturally he's paired with a hothead cop who's fired his gun too many times, Detective Hoitz (Mark Wahlberg). It's a formula, the mismatched buddy cop picture, just as Red Robin is a formulaic chain restaurant. And you set your expectations accordingly.

Since it's only rated PG-13, though sure to feature the R stuff on its DVD cut, The Other Guys doesn't let Ferrell stray into Anchorman or Old School-style debauchery. Flashbacks to college--yes, there's his dormant wild side--are pretty tame. And though Gamble is revealed to be the husband of a smoking-hot wife (Eva Mendes), their unlikely sexual spark is never allowed to flare. So, too, are the shootings, car chases, and explosions generally harmless. The film's meant to be a send-up of all the similar (straight) cop movies we've seen before, but the good ones in that genre--think of the first Lethal Weapon--have a genuine insanity and mayhem to them. The Other Guys never achieves that fine level of madness, even when Ferrell begins slaloming his Prius to crime scenes and Wahlberg dances a few ballet steps to impress his estranged girlfriend.

The movie, directed by Ferrell's other half since SNL, Adam McKay, relies on bits of verbal improv or just throws random scenes at the wall to see which stick. (The plot, not that it matters, has something to do with Enron-style financial crimes being orchestrated by Steve Coogan.) The Other Guys is actually funniest in its quiet moments, as when a befuddled Wahlberg first meets Mendes (surprisingly effective) and just can't get past the What's she doing with him?-ness of the situation. And old pro Michael Keaton, as the detectives' boss, has some wonderfully off-speed reactions to their incompetence; it's like he's receiving a burst of oxygen just after the rest of them. But mainly the movie makes you appreciate Leslie Nielsen in all those Naked Gun movies. (Good idea, actually, not to give him a cameo.)

I did smile, however, at Det. Gamble's love for Little River Band. Or rather, I smiled at the same soft rock later playing at Red Robin, which is actually quite uncrowded late on a weeknight. (Lunch and dinner are usually well subscribed, particularly on sunny days when you can sit outside or stare through the windows at Elliott Bay.) Once a chain restaurant, always a chain restaurant. Red Robin, like Gamble, can never be made hip. And unlike the movie, Red Robin doesn't insist on a lurking wild side; it doesn't promise excitement or danger on its large, plastic-laminated menu. And because that menu isn't very ambitious, it delivers the goods.

A bacon cheeseburger ($9.79) is neither huge nor sloppy. It's not overstuffed with extra condiments and ingredients. The tomato and lettuce are fresh. And while no one asked me if I wanted the cheddar, American, Swiss, bleu, provolone or pepper-jack cheese, the cheddar was just fine. Red Robin cuts its French fries large and boxy, with lots of surface area for scooping up catsup ketchup. Though they do taste somewhat undercooked and potato-y, a little bland. (Actually, that's the same sort of complaint Hoitz might make about Gamble.) The big problem with Red Robin isn't the food, but the ambiance. Unless you're sitting outside for beers at sunset, the restaurant itself is cluttered with phony décor and bric-à-brac; it's trying too hard, like The Other Guys.

But the good news is, Red Robin does take-out. And while there's no good reason to rush out and see The Other Guys in theaters, you can wait for the unrated and hopefully bawdier DVD, rent it at Blockbuster, then stop to grab some burgers at Red Robin on your way home.

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