Let’s Be Cops has Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans, Jr. going for it, and nothing else.
by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. An American comedy film comes to you with a rock-solid and easily marketable premise. It casts two leads who have excellent chemistry with one another and a natural ability to make great material outstanding and turgid material decent due to said aforementioned ability and chemistry. The film then saddles them with not particularly funny material and expects them to carry the film based solely on their lightning chemistry and raw talent, and their sheer effort to make the material work does sometimes yield results but mostly just makes everyone involved come off as trying way too hard. Finally, the final third eventually rolls around, upon which time the plot muscles its way in and the jokes dry up because nobody seems to know how to make plot funny despite that being one of the main ingredients of a comedy. Oh, and it’s also way too long. Like, way too long. Like, wow.
It is an all-too familiar story and one that Let’s Be Cops slips into so comfortably one would be forgiven for thinking that everyone involved were trying to make a disappointingly mediocre-to-bad comedy. The premise: two losers, named Justin and Ryan, hitting their 30s and stuck in a rut get dressed up as police officers for what they think is a fancy dress party, discover that they can pass off for actual police officers in public and, with nothing better going on in their lives, decide to see how far they can take the ruse. The leads: Jake Johnson (as Ryan) and Damon Wayans, Jr. (as Justin), both having gotten their breaks on cult TV sitcoms (New Girl for Johnson, Happy Endings for Wayans), both now starring on the same show and both being tremendously talented performers with a tonne of comedic chemistry. The jokes: rather thin on the ground, the film instead being content to just come up with scenarios to drop the actors in and see what funny may or may not happen. The final third: unbelievably tonally ill-fitting, joke-free and just a badly made version of better films that do this stuff seriously for their entire run-time. The run-time: just under an hour and fifty but feels well over the two hour mark even before the last third makes its unwelcome entrance.
Of course, Let’s Be Cops also has a black mark against it that can only come from inadvertent poor timing, so let’s address the elephant in the room. Yes, in the wake of the tragic events in Ferguson, Missouri this past month, where just some of the true extent of the abuse of force by police officers has come to horrifying light, a lot of Let’s Be Cops’ sillier moments become a little uncomfortable to sit through, in much the same way that the tragic massacre in Isla Vita back in May made A Million Ways To Die In The West’s narrative thread of “good guys deserve to get the girl” more than a little awkward. Watching Justin and Ryan test how much they can get away with by playfully brandishing their unloaded guns in a crowded restaurant, recklessly driving on busy sidewalks and harassing pedestrians for the simple reason that they can, hews a little too close to our depressing reality to be able to register as genuinely funny; I found myself giving the kind of awkward uncomfortable chuckle that one may do after hearing a joke that you’ve found more offensive than funny. If the film actually crafted full-on jokes instead of scenarios, if it went big and cartoony and exaggerated instead of staying rather close to reality, then this may not have been such a problem. In fact, if you’re not even aware of Ferguson (and you really, really should be) or are able to distance yourself enough from current events to not be bothered by the parallels to real life, then it may not be a problem for you, but it was for me and it may be for other people. Again, I realise that this can’t really be helped, but stuff like having Justin’s big videogame pitch be ridiculously similar to Battlefield Hardline really did strike a not-particularly-pleasant chord with me.
Oh, and whilst I’m on personal hang-ups that will not affect everyone, and probably surprising absolutely no-one at this point, I take issue with the portrayal of women in this film. With the exception of Nina Dobrev, who plays the role of Token Love Interest in order to remind us all that Justin is straight no matter how close he may be Ryan (because god forbid an American comedy have the really close male leads just be gay lovers for once), every woman is somebody who wants to have sexual relations with Ryan and Justin or, at least, kiss them repeatedly on the lips purely because they’re cops. The one exception is when the pair pay a visit to a domestic disturbance where they encounter a college student Ryan would like to have sex with and two angry, crazy and masculine-acting black women. Look, you all may think that I am nit-picking here and that this is inconsequential overall, but Let’s Be Cops isn’t the only film to use women as simply window dressing for the men to leer at or have sex with. This is the norm, especially in American comedies, and I am going to keep pointing this out until I start seeing more films, and more American comedies, that treat women as characters and people instead of just things for the male characters to have sex with or humourless straight men. And seeing as Let’s Be Cops perfectly fits into that niche of embodying everything that’s wrong with American comedies nowadays, I am going to dock it points for this stuff because, in this case, it really does add up.
Anyway, let’s get to that final third because that’s where the film’s biggest problems lie. See, as expected, up until that point, the film is happy enough to just drop the characters in silly situations and see what Johnson and Wayans, Jr. can come up with. It’s light, it’s silly, it’s inconsequential and, obviously, it’s at its weakest when the plot and our villains for the film’s runtime show up and make things all serious and stuff. As mandated in The Blueprint To Making An American Comedy Film, the last third consists of the plot and the villains turning up to be dealt with in a very serious and joke-free way. The reason why this time it’s a huge issue instead of a depressingly familiar thing we just have to accept nowadays is because Let’s Be Cops’ final third switches from being a goofy buddy-(fake)-cop movie to, I kid you not here, an End Of Watch knock-off. And a really, really bad one, too. Action is shot and staged poorly, tension is non-existent, plot twists carry no weight because none of the characters are interesting or likeable, the drama falls flat because a film that was just twenty minutes ago showing us a scene where Justin crazily trips on crystal meth now wants to make you feel feelings that aren’t laughter-related and it’s as an abrupt a left-turn as that sounds. I mean, I shouldn’t be surprised, its prior occasional dramatic thread (Ryan and Justin hitting 30 and realising that they haven’t really done anything with their lives) was executed a million times better in May’s Bad Neighbours, but it’s still unbelievably misguided. And then it ends way, way, way too cleanly and happily, especially since the film spends a lot of its runtime stressing the consequences that their actions will have, only to have everything just sort of work itself out.
All this being said, Let’s Be Cops is not totally without merit. It’s just that its merits are entirely related to Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans, Jr. merely showing up. Even when their characters are being unabashedly terrible people (another reason why the ending feels way too neat), the duo manage to keep them on the edge of likeability due to their natural charm, charisma and comedic chemistry. Probably from that time they’ve been sharing on New Girl, they slip into a very comfortable rhythm, each clearly at ease with one another and knowing each other’s strengths and weaknesses. When laughs do come, and they do eventually come, mostly being sequestered to the film’s middle stretch, it’s pretty much down to them, much like how The Other Woman’s few laughs came from a fiercely-determined-to-make-this-crap-work Leslie Mann and Kate Upton. They lock into a groove that sells mediocre material at a higher price than it deserves. The inevitable sequence in which Ryan trades gay double entendre with a real cop actually becomes funny purely by Justin’s background reaction to the thing, an inevitable bit of sudden gross-out humour (this time involving a fat naked man) is saved because Damon Wayans, Jr. is one of the best in the business today at freak-out scenes, and Johnson and Wayans, Jr. get enough bicker-filled exchanges to remind me that I’d rather see them in a film with infinitely better material.
This one saddens me, folks. I really like Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans, Jr. and they deserve big things. Big things that are better than this, at any rate. I must admit that I did laugh at Let’s Be Cops, enough to feel like I hadn’t completely wasted nearly two hours, but it’s such a neat distillation of everything that is currently wrong with American comedies that the fact that I laughed doesn’t really amount to much in the grand scheme of things. If we’re lucky, some enterprising young studio exec will snap up both Johnson and Wayans, Jr. for various buddy comedies for as long as this pairing are able to retain their lightning chemistry. If we’re very lucky, Keegan-Michael Key will be brought back along for the ride, too. And if we’re very, very lucky, they’ll all be given a script that’s a million times funnier and less problematic than the one for Let’s Be Cops. It’s not the best comedy of the year so far, it’s not even the best cop-based comedy of the year (although, admittedly, both are one and the same). It’s just an overlong and not very funny comedy that’s not worth your time.