Between the Ferguson, Missouri, police shootings, Lauren Bacall’s death and Robin Williams’s suicide, this has been a particularly painful week to endure. Its gloomy times like these where we could collectively use some comedy to abate the sadness. And so in desperate need of a remedy we turn to Hollywood’s latest comic offering, Let’s Be Cops. There is laughter to be found here, unfortunately that laughter is buried under a towering mountain of rampant misogyny, homophobia and poop humor. In other words, if you like your movies in which two males treat women poorly, mock homosexuality and repeatedly slap each other in the face, this film is for you.
From moment one Luke Greenfield’s regressive trifle feels dated — culturally, politically, cinematically. We open with the Backstreet Boys pop hit “I Want It That Way,” which would be slightly amusing if This Is The End didn’t exist. But it does. It’s only downhill from there as Greenfield and Nicholas Thomas’ script charts the listless adventures of Ryan (Jake Johnson) and Justin (Damon Wayans Jr.), a pair of aimless 30 somethings who — after putting on a cop outfit for a costume party — dupe people into believing that they are genuine LAPD officers. They are, of course, the farthest things from law enforcers. Justin is an aspiring game designer and Ryan was once an All-American quarterback at Purdue who now lives off the paycheck of a Herpes commercial he did a few years ago. It takes a certain kind of genius (or, perhaps, village idiot) to make this up.
Ryan and Justin waste no time taking this impersonation business to the next level. An abundance of free time and a paucity of ambition leads Ryan to purchase a cop car from eBay and study police codes/signals/tactics on Youtube. And at first Let’s Be Cops amuses, allowing its New Girl co-stars to work off each other’s chemistry as they travel around LA pretending to be something they are not. Of course, these characters exist in some alternative universe where every criminal respects the law and every girl is ready to undress at a moment’s notice. Who knew being a cop yielded so much respect and attraction?
The film takes a sharp right turn with its stuffy plotting though, as Justin and Ryan soon find themselves engulfed in a cesspool of Russian mobsters (they’re always Russian) and crooked cops. Since they have no experience in law enforcement and are committing crimes every second they spend in uniform, they make the pragmatic decision of jumping into this dangerous environment headfirst. While Justin is a bit reluctant to go along with this charade, Ryan can’t resist. This fake position is the first time they’ve been respected by anyone in years, and they’re not willing to give it up over a few menacing criminals.
That aforementioned resistance is the first significant issue plaguing Let’s Be Cops. An inordinate amount of dialogue in this movie is Justin either a) whining, b) playing the realist or c) doing both simultaneously. Justin is the brakes, Ryan is the gas, but he exerts little energy convincing Justin that the wrong play is the right one. Why? Because he’s a pushover who disrupts the rhythm of nearly every scene in this movie before sinking back into his natural, whiny state.
Not that there’s much to disrupt here. When not kvetching about the potential jail time they could be facing, Justin attempts to court Josie (Nina Dobrev), a waitress who wouldn’t give him the time of day before he presented himself as a cop. This subplot quickly informs us of Greenfield and Thomas’s archaic sensibilities. Steeped in an ideology that believes women are hopelessly attracted to authority, Let’s Be Cops hasn’t the faintest idea of how to depict women. The only other female presence in this film is a prostitute who spends all of her time on screen trying to seduce Ryan. Forget the Bechdel test, this film couldn’t pass even the most rudimentary of exams that gauge humanity. As decent as Ryan and Justin both appear, neither character has any real respect for women, and in turn, not a single woman has respect for herself. It’s a distasteful element that sours a lot of the potential humor.
If you’re somehow able to overlook the troubling misogyny and cluttered plotting, you’ll still have to deal with what Greenfield and Thomas must believe to be physical humor: slapping. Endless slapping. I’m not sure what this physical outburst means to Ryan and Justin, but they sure do love to do it. And as you can probably imagine, after about slap #3, the concept of adult men constantly attacking each other like petulant children is a bit enervating. You don’t go into a movie called Let’s Be Cops expecting Chaplin-level slapstick, but Johnson and Wayans Jr. can do — and have done — better than this.
What’s most disheartening about Let’s Be Cops is that underneath its morally questionable surface is a film that’s actually about something. Josh and Ryan, like all of us, exist in the career-driven, monetary-motivated world we’ve created here in capitalist America 2014. Naturally, this way of life breeds an environment that demands people to do something, and fast. But like many citizens of this country, life has not gone according to plan for these two. After a decade of attempting to make it work in LA, their aspirations have been dashed by a society that continues to reject them. And so they cling to this newfound vocation, however superficial, without a second thought. They’re so desperate to make it, to have an “identity,” that they’re willing to be something they’re not — because to them being an impostor is better than being nothing at all.
It’a a realization so tragic that the film does everything in its power to mask it. And thus spawns the cultural and sociological anachronisms, the abhorrent treatment of women and two leading men who really aren’t men at all. Immunity to vulnerability and empathy is only interesting when you can produce comedy to fill the margins. Let’s Be Cops doesn’t do much of that either.
The Upside: Andy Garcia’s small role as nefarious detective; Johnson’s antics before they grow tiring
The Downside: Antiquated world views, dull antagonists, middling humor
On the side: Greenfield also directed The Girl Next Door.