Adam McKay, Cineaste

What The Other Guys director learned from Luis Buñuel and John Cassavetes.

Also in Slate: Josh Levin reviews Adam McKay’s new movie, The Other Guys. 

Step Brothers

Adam McKay is a co-founder of the star-making improv group Upright Citizens Brigade, the co-creator of the inescapable video site Funny or Die, and the guy who hired Tina Fey for Saturday Night Live. Thus his credentials as a prime mover of mainstream American comedy—including a strong ‘90s run as head writer at SNL and the immortal Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)—will survive The Other Guys, a buddy-cop misfire starring Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg as poorly matched desk jockeys. (It’s notably the first of McKay’s four features to lack a Ferrell writing credit; perhaps the actor is to McKay what Owen Wilson was to Wes Anderson.)

Though it’s overstuffed and undercooked, The Other Guys does have some choice moments of McKay-style non sequitur: a disquisition on the martial superiority of the tuna over the lion, a brawl at a funeral conducted in respectful whispers, the sentence “I want to break your hip” deployed as a tender foreplay overture. It’s enough to remind us why audiences first connected with McKay’s (and Ferrell’s) disorderly absurdism—a no-self-awareness zone where the air is thick with macho bluster and barely suppressed male hysteria, with diesel fumes and Sex Panther. As broad and lewd as his movies and skits can be, a look at the roots of McKay’s brand of “smart-dumb comedy” reveals some surprisingly highbrow and esoteric influences.

Like scores of SNL staffers before him, McKay got his start in Chicago under the tutelage of Del Close, inventor of the long-form improvisation mode known as “the Harold.” Actors in a Harold create three discrete scenes, then two variations on each; characters from different scenes can mingle, story lines dovetail, offhand lines of dialogue become refrains. (Later, McKay and his fellow Second City players drew upon the format for 1995’s long-running revue Piñata Full of Bees, which over the years has gained a reputation as the seminal, rule-smashing Never Mind the Bollocks of improv.) The Harold stretches the performers’ powers of concentration and memory—and those of the audience, too—far more than, say, a series of short, unconnected skits a la Whose Line Is It Anyway? (One might also guess that the Harold is a better training ground for writing feature-length films.) With the founding of the Upright Citizens Brigade, spontaneous theater became guerrilla performance art: The group’s chaotic early exploits included a fake murder (staged in McKay’s apartment), a fake suicide (McKay’s own, which he advertised beforehand by handing out flyers), and a fake street revolution (which McKay says led to the arrest of future SNL player Horatio Sanz).

This rigorous training in unscripted (and occasionally unlawful) long-form theater paid lunatic dividends in McKay’s first three movies. He shot a staggering 1.5 million feet of film for his unhinged battle-of-the-manchildren Step Brothers (2008)—”more than Apocalypse Now,” he notes in the DVD commentary—and had so much extra footage on Anchorman that he carved an entire second narrative out of it. Of course, improvisation is all but a given in the Judd Apatow age of Hollywood comedy, but McKay is up to something a bit different. The riffing in an Apatow movie tends to be grounded in a mutually-agreed-upon reality and is heavy on pop-culture references—think of the volley of nicknames for the hirsute friend in Knocked Up (“Serpico,” “Chewbacca,” “Scorsese on coke”) or the flirtation scene in The 40-Year-Old Virgin that pivots on the command “Be David Caruso in Jade.” By contrast, McKay at his best is a true absurdist, guiding his performers into hallucinatory parallel dimensions (a cockfight featuring a death by trident, perchance) with references and internal logic of their own. For Step Brothers, the great character actor Richard Jenkins, who had no improv experience, took just a few words of prompting from McKay to spin a sublimely impassioned speech about his dashed childhood dreams of becoming a dinosaur. In the NASCAR spoof Talladega Nights (2006), the magnificent John C. Reilly conjures alternate realities out of thin air, where best friends go together like cocaine and waffles and Jesus Christ takes earthly shape as a troublemaking badger or an interpretive ice dancer or a hairy rock idol.

McKay’s finest, most sustained joke of all is that his characters have alarmingly active dream and fantasy lives. (Dream-state cameo players in Step Brothers include a lumberjack and a centaur; the sleepwalking scene merits a short film of its own.) This appetite for the irrational has been shaped by McKay’s erudite moviegoing habits: In a 2006 interview with Cinema Scope, he professed his love for the films of surrealist provocateur Luis Buñuel, particularly The Phantom of Liberty (1974), an episodic tweaking of middle-class convention that’s like La Ronde meets Monty Python meets LSD. To glimpse the Platonic ideal of a McKay movie, look no further than Phantom, with its sketch-comedy trappings and delirious imagery (players include tipsy monks, sexually arousing architecture, and a wayward emu). One can almost picture the film developing out of a Harold.

Likewise, McKay’s stated enthusiasm for the films of John CassavetesHusbands in particular—adds intriguing texture to the preponderance of grasping, delusional male specimens in his film and TV efforts. An improv-based, vérité-style chronicle of three suburban schmoes on a spectacular bender after the death of a close friend, Husbands is an unnervingly intimate journey to the end of the night that McKay has praised as “crazy funny, crazy sad, crazy dark.” It may seem sacrilegious even to suggest any parallel between Cassavetes (or Buñuel, for that matter) and a director who once arranged for Will Ferrell to rub his prosthetic testicles vengefully on a drum kit. But whether he’s writing a cult-forming SNL skit about sozzled sad-sacks bonding over a mythical colleague or producing an expertly pungent HBO series about a flailing flameout of a jacked-up ballplayer, McKay is drawn to chest-puffing mid-lifers surfing a wave of hard liquor toward a nervous breakdown—or at least toward the relative safety of other chest-puffing mid-lifers. So when Husbands’ Peter Falk says that he likes sports because “you get sweaty and you feel good and you’re with guys you like” (!!), one might think he took the words right out of the mouth of sportscaster Champ Kind in Anchorman.

McKay’s rawer, artier inclinations make one wonder why, at this point in his career, he would bother with a formulaic shoot-’em-up such as The Other Guys. The man has pulled off a NASCAR-authorized blockbuster that climaxes with a lengthy guy-on-guy kiss. He got audiences to the legitimately weird and anarchic (and insanely overpriced) Step Brothers, wherein Ferrell’s stunted character beams with triumph after he figures out how to buy his own toilet paper for the first time. McKay could probably match a developing nation’s GDP with the money he made off that video of his toddler swearing at Ferrell. He seems primed for a project that’s politically incorrect in the best sense of the phrase: McKay, who in his Second City days portrayed Noam Chomsky as a truth-telling kindergarten teacher, wears his left-leaning populism on his sleeve, whether on Broadway, in his intermittent Huffington Post blog, or in the animated guide to corporate malfeasance tacked on to the end of The Other Guys.

In short, McKay can do anything he pleases—so why not try to dig out his inner Del Close or art-house auteur? Why not direct his own recession-era Husbands? (Reilly! Ferrell! Paul Rudd! This must happen.) Adam McKay, if you’re out there, hear our plea: You and a low-budget labor of love would go together like cocaine and waffles.

Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.