Just as a pile of puzzle pieces doesn’t inherently add up to a masterpiece, Let’s Be Cops has precious few laughs for a movie starring people as historically funny as Jake Johnson, Damon Wayans Jr. (both from New Girl), Rob Riggle and Keegan Michael Key. In fact, it has precious few laughs at all.
Its biggest mistake is learning from the wrong lessons of the 21 Jump Street and its hilarious sequel. Those movies succeed because their sillier moments mix well with the surprisingly sweet and detailed central relationship. Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill are engaging on their own but better in tandem. Johnson and Wayans spend most of this movie yelling past each other, partially because their characters almost never see eye-to-eye and occasionally seem to hate each other despite being best friends. The result is not chemistry but combustion, two actors clearly straining to demonstrate their engagement with the material. Trouble is, the material’s no good. They’re wasting their breath.
The premise is harmless enough. Johnson plays Ryan O’Malley, a 30-year-old slacker who sustained a self-induced injury that prevented him from entering the NFL. Wayans is down-on-his-luck video game designer Justin Miller, ostensibly Ryan’s best friend. When the pair heads to a costume party dressed as cops, only to find out that they were actually invited to a masquerade, all hope of self-confidence seems to be lost. At that moment, they realize that people on the street seem to believe they’re cops. Instead of taking off the costumes and running in the other direction, they decide to keep up the charade. Contrivances and questionable character motivations prevent them from escaping their facade, and things turn sour when Russian mobsters enter the scene.
What drives these two men to take on such a loaded and potentially dangerous role? How does their relationship to their characters within characters evolve as they get more comfortable in their roles? How does the freedom of being “above the law” come back to haunt these innocent fools? These are interesting questions that might be the basis of an intriguing comedy, but Let’s Be Cops answers them superficially or not at all. Ryan is far more willing to rack up criminal acts than Justin is, but this tension proves to be wearying rather than enlivening. The two main characters spend most of the movie bickering. If Justin got his way, the movie would be over, so of course he doesn’t. The movie lacks meaningful conflict.
The sloppily constructed script by Luke Greenfield and Nicholas Thomas is no more effective at generating narrative intrigue than it is at bringing the funny, and Greenfield doesn’t seem to have the slightest idea of how to stage an action sequence or build suspense. Straightforward action takes over in the movie’s last quarter, which is disappointing not because what came before was too funny to part with, but because the feeble attempts at comedy are at least more interesting than the sub-standard, aggressively ordinary chase sequences that follow.
Worse still, Let’s Be Cops is downright condescending to women. As the waitress Josie, Nina Dobrev is the only recognizable female actress anywhere to be found, and she’s relegated to the meager role of the physically attractive love interest. The movie seems completely unaware of the strain of sexism that runs through its depiction of the relationship between Justin and Josie, or the one-dimensional shrillness of Lydia (Natasha Leggero), a lasciviously cartoonish criminal who appears in the movie only to ramp up the “sexual content” of its MPAA rating. Given that Johnson and Wayans come from New Girl and Happy Endings, shows with multi-dimensional female characters who have agency independent of their male co-stars, the suffocating traditional masculinity of this movie’s comedic perspective is dispiriting.
Most basically, though, the movie just isn’t funny. No one involved seems to be enjoying themselves, and if they are, Greenfield doesn’t effectively translate the enthusiasm onscreen. Riggle gets more laughs out of a few minutes of screentime in 21 Jump Street than he does with considerably more in Let’s Be Cops. Keegan Michael Key elicited a few chuckles from me, largely because I was imagining his character fitting in alongside the players in the East/West College Bowl, but his performance basically amounts to a silly accent and liberal profanity. Johnson and Wayans have noble intentions and loads of talent, but they only rare get to show it.
Let’s forget this movie sooner rather than later, shall we?