From Stan and Ollie to Starsky and Hutch, Hollywood has relied on the buddy system - same sex, coed or confused ("Some Like It Hot"). Butch had Sundance, Bonnie had Clyde, Dumb had Dumber, and Tango had Cash. Some combinations are like peaches and cream. Others are like oysters and milk.
In other words, some matchups seem more appealing than others, and some are unappetizing by definition. Sure, appearances can be deceiving - the comedy sum can be greater than its parts, even when those parts, by nature, seem destined to clash. That said, this week's entry in the Felix and Oscar Memorial Tag Team Event is "The Other Guys," starring Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg.
Do they compute? Not on paper: The wack-a-doo Ferrell - notable for his utter lack of self-consciousness and inhibitions - has powered "Anchorman," "Elf," "Blades of Glory" and "Step Brothers" to quasi-cult status. Wahlberg, the former Marky Mark, is - to put it mildly - a different sort altogether: From "Boogie Nights" through "The Lovely Bones," his persona might be described as serious, dour or angry, but usually something other than "mirthful."
In the new action comedy directed by Adam McKay ("Anchorman," "Step Brothers"), the two play Allen Gamble (Ferrell) and Terry Hoitz (Wahlberg), second stringers to Christopher Danson (Dwayne Johnson) and P.K. Highsmith (Samuel L. Jackson), their precinct's star detectives and the most famous cops in the NYPD. Gamble is a police accountant who prefers desk work; Hoitz (what kind of name is that?) has been stuck with Gamble since a problem shooting. Our heroes may be dogs, but they'll have their day.
Economically speaking, Ferrell may have already had his: The difference at the box office between "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby" (2006) and last year's woeful "Land of the Lost" was a cool $100 million. Wahlberg, despite some critically acclaimed performances (including an Oscar nomination for "The Departed"), has never gotten a lot of traction among general audiences. So maybe there is power in numbers, even if that number is two - and none of it adds up.
And yet . . . opposites not only attract, they can work. Who would have thought the crooner and the comic, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, would have clicked in all those old "Road" movies? Who would have expected Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn - she having done a lot more comedy than he - to keep "The African Queen" bobbing all the way down the Ulanga River (even when the boat itself ran aground)? Ruth Gordon was funny, Bud Cort wasn't, but "Harold and Maude" is still a classic. And while it might not be everyone's cup of tea, the pairing of madcap comedian Jim Carrey with the far more serious Jeff Daniels made a hit out of "Dumb & Dumber."
Although it seems to have fallen off everybody's radar, "Midnight Run" remains a classic and starred the highly unlikely combo of Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin, two actors who oughtn't even exist in the same universe. Speaking of universe, who was the genius who decided to pair Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones in the sci-fi comedy "Men in Black"? One was an ex-rapper and sitcom star who had just broken out with "Independence Day"; the other was the solemn, grim-faced veteran of "Lonesome Dove," "JFK" and "The Fugitive." What you got was intergalactic chemistry.
Of course, the results of some odd-coupling has been gruesome: Who thought matching Jack Nicholson with Adam Sandler in "Anger Management" was a good idea? Their accountants? How about Queen Latifah and Steve Martin in "Bringing Down the House"? We'll show ourselves out, thanks. And while many actors have been rumored to hate each other when they're making their movies, few have shown it so plainly as Julia Roberts and Nick Nolte In "I Love Trouble," or become as legendary about it as Debra Winger and Shirley MacLaine in "Terms of Endearment."
Off-screen difficulties aren't always reflected on screen: Ginger Rogers didn't always get along with Fred Astaire, and the dancing was perfect. (Although when Ginger famously whacked Fred with her beaded sleeve in 1936's "Follow the Fleet," was it really an accident?) Conversely, if you watch Bud Abbott and Lou Costello in "The Time of Their Lives" (1946), you'll notice how often they don't share the same frame; they were feuding and were shot separately as much as possible. Comedy, in short, is hard; humans are difficult, finding the right match on screen is just as hard as in real life and one needn't look back much further than the past few months for examples: "Knight and Day" (Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz), "The Bounty Hunter" (Gerard Butler and Jennifer Aniston), "Date Night" (Steve Carell and Tina Fey). It isn't pretty. And while no one's expecting Ferrell and Wahlberg to turn into Fred and Ginger, given what's happened to twosomes this year, let's hope they can at least tango.
It takes more than one star to open a movie
Unless the subject is blue ("Avatar") or green ("Shrek"), two-tone high-gloss enamel ("Iron Man") or arrives in phantasmagoric 3-D ("Alice in Wonderland"), it doesn't seem that Hollywood has a lot of faith in the ability of one man or woman to open a movie anymore. The so-called "star vehicle"? It's starting to look more like a double-decker bus.
Of course, "star-studded" has long been a Hollywood adjective, and action films in particular have been known to cast a lot of well-known names, so they could be killed off more easily (see "The Magnificent Seven," "The Dirty Dozen," etc.). But it's getting crowded out here.
The latest example is "The Other Guys," which is being sold as a buddy movie starring Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg, but has Dwayne Johnson, Samuel L. Jackson, Eva Mendes, Michael Keaton, Steve Coogan, Rob Riggle and Damon Wayans Jr. along for moral / economic support. Earlier this summer, "The A-Team" came and went and took Liam Neeson, Bradley Cooper, Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, Sharlto Copley and Jessica Biel with it.
"The Expendables," which opens Aug. 13, will offer Sylvester Stallone, Jet Li, Mickey Rourke, Terry Crews, Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren and Eric Roberts. When the hotly anticipated "Eat Pray Love" opens the same day, Julia Roberts will find herself in the company of Javier Bardem, Viola Davis, Billy Crudup, James Franco and Richard Jenkins.
Heck, even Angelina Jolie came in second place last week at the box office with "Salt," having been beaten out by "Inception" - which is another movie offering more stars for your moviegoing buck. Call it the Recession Special - or a change in philosophy of an industry that has always lived by the Great Man (or Woman) theory of history. And finance.