Let's Just Not: Unfunny "Let's Be Cops" has no right to waste funny people

Let's Be Cops (2014)
109 min., rated R.

More "White Chicks" than "21 Jump Street," unfortunately, "Let's Be Cops" is an R-rated buddy-cop comedy that has a wacky premise ripe with infinite comedic possibilities and affable, funny people trying to make it work, and yet the laughs never come. Slack and labored, the film isn't completely dead on arrival, as it might have a count of maybe two snickers, but it's definitely amateur hour for all involved. Directed by Luke Greenfield (who's far and away worse here and closer to 2001's "The Animal" than the pleasant surprise of 2004's "The Girl Next Door") from a screenplay he wrote with Nicholas Thomas, the film is enthusiastically performed at best and exasperatingly unfunny at worst, so why blame the performers when the material just isn't there? Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves, except for the audience and anyone from 20th Century Fox who decided to take a chance and greenlight this unpromising dud. Watching it in a theater of smart, discerning moviegoers will be like witnessing the sound of a pin drop or crickets chirping.

Try and swallow this one-line premise, which is so moronic and unconvincing but could have been more workable as a 20-minute sketch and not a padded feature film. Video-game designing assistant Justin (Damon Wayans, Jr.) and his best friend/roommate Ryan (Jake Johnson), an ex-football player who never stuck to one career, are both in their 30s and feel like Los Angeles is no longer for them due to their professional failures and rejections. Before deciding to go back home to Ohio, the two struggling buds leave an alumni party wearing cop uniforms and are looked upon as real cops. They feel powerful, respected, and just plain cool. While Justin is a little hestitant at first to take their cop impersonation any further, Ryan is completely on-board to the point that he bids for a cop vehicle on eBay and buys all of the car decals. Of course, Justin and Ryan somehow get involved with a Russian crime mob, led by impulsively angry ringleader Mossi (James D'Arcy), and are way in over their heads, or will they come out behaving like smart, tough detectives and solve a huge conspiracy? Hilarity is bound to ensue…or not.

Opening with one of the leads belting out the Backstreet Boys' "I Want It That Way," "Let's Be Cops" comes in screaming as an American comedy dying for some edge or freshness. There is some amusement in an early scene, where Justin tries pitching his cop-centric idea for a first-person shooter game and his douchebag boss hopes for less of a gimmick but is completely on board with a boneheaded game involving firefighters and zombies. About the next best thing that can be said for the film is that a large chunk of it is too silly and divorced from reality to be called mean-spirited or hateful. No one can buy the concept, so one should be unable to resist laughing at how stupid it all is. It's okay to suspend disbelief, even when two characters get away with posing as authority figures (a criminal offense, which is at least touched on briefly). But, in the case of "Let's Be Cops," it never takes off to an outrageous or side-splitting degree for the viewer to cut the film any slack and say, "Oh, it's just a movie." The inciting incident that sets up the premise is our fat-headed heroes mistaking a masquerade party for a costume party and showing up in their cop uniforms, even though that wheezy joke wouldn't have even passed muster on an episode of "Seinfeld." The use of its R-rating is pretty worthless, too, desperately straining to go far with it in one instance involving a naked, sweaty man the size of a sumo wrestler tackling Justin in a precarious position, cued to Miley Cyrus' pop ballad "Wrecking Ball." Or, take another cringe-inducingly lame comic set-piece where our fake cops must separate two black, stereotypically named sorority sisters before they rip each other's hair out. Then, once the film stops even trying to be a comedy, the crime-related case at hand takes over and turns the rest of it into a gritty, violent cop-thriller—a completely different movie. It even has the gall to comment on how movie violence is so realistic, while cross-cutting to a shoot-out and a character being kidnapped and taken into an underground tunnel to be tortured. Finally, feelings are sorted out and apologies are made, and the joys of brotherhood earn the use of Band of Horses' "The Funeral." Why carp, but that great song is uncomfortably too melancholy for the scene.

Damon Wayans, Jr. and Jake Johnson (regulars on TV's "New Girl") are done a disservice by earning so much good will and then having their efforts turn up in a waste of time. Both playing below their abilities, these likable, gifted comedians do remain in high spirits over the course of a long 109 minutes, and they have bromantic chemistry, but it should be on display in a much funnier vehicle that explodes with boisterous anarchy. Nina Dobrev (TV's "The Vampire Diaries") has a nice presence as Josie, an attractive waitress and love interest for Justin who has the interesting dream of being a creature-effects makeup artist; Rob Riggle is actually preferable in a straight role as a real LAPD officer; and Natasha Leggero is always game to score a couple laughs as a drugged-out broad, but here, they are out of pity. Impressively buffed up for the part, James D'Arcy isn't asked to be funny, but he makes for an effectively menacing heavy that he should be given the chance more often. As is always the question, how bad can a movie with good people really be? This bad, apparently, as there isn't much else to say about "Let's Be Cops." It's bad enough when these three words are actually uttered from someone on screen: "It's not funny." Maybe the makers even knew their would-be comedy's downfall.

Grade: D +