Thursday, February 25, 2010

A comedy that cops out on laughs

Tracy Morgan and Bruce Willis are not funny together.

Before I persuaded myself - coerced might be a better word - to write about the new comedy Cop Out, I watched a bunch of Tracy Morgan clips on You Tube. I'd already heard Morgan being interviewed by Terry Gross on NPR, and I'd read an on-line excerpt from the comic's autobiography, I Am the New Black.

I do not consider myself an expert on all things Tracy Morgan, who stars with Bruce Willis in Cop Out. I'd seen only glimpses of Morgan during his stint on Saturday Night Live, a show I gave up on years ago, and I'm not a regular viewer of 30 Rock, either. But what interested me most about Morgan was his unpredictability.

In almost every televised interview, Morgan managed to catch the interviewer off guard, to twist a question to his advantage; i.e., to turn it into a potentially explosive piece of comedy. He'd strip off his shirt and show his generous belly while simultaneously presenting himself as a babe magnet, a Lothario from the hood. He seemed to suggest that something might go terribly wrong, and the interviewer would be unable to control it.

OK, by now you're wondering why I'm rattling on about Morgan and haven't said much about Cop Out, which was directed by Kevin Smith of Clerks, Clerks II, Mall Rats, Dogma, Zack and Miri Make a Porno and other comedies that have won their share of ardent supporters. I'm procrastinating because Cop Out is a colossal disappointment, a formulaic junk yard of a movie that may have been intended as a send-up of every comedy in which a serious white cop (that would be Willis) teams up with a funny black cop (that would be Morgan). Cop Out isn't 48 Hrs. Hell, it's not sharp enough to be called 48 Minutes.

This failure results, at least in part, from a misuse of Morgan. He plays a jealous Brooklyn-based detective who thinks his beautiful wife (Rashida Jones) is cheating on him. Morgan's Paul Hodges reenacts bits from movies, sometimes slobbers on himself and generally plays the oaf to Willis' Jimmy Monroe. By way of contrast, Monroe is a hard-edged cop who's divorced and worrying about how he's going to pay for his daughter's upcoming wedding, a lavish affair with a whopping $48,000 price tag.

Here's where the plot enters, and it's anything but a welcome arrival. In order to pay for the wedding, Willis decides to sell his mint condition Andy Pafko baseball card. Pafko played for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1951 and 1952. He was in left field when Bobby Thomson's famous home run sailed into the stands, sending the Giants to the World Series and returning the Dodgers to bumhood.

Through a series of awkward contrivances, the baseball card winds up in the hands of a brutal Mexican drug lord named Poh Boy (Guillermo Diaz). Po Boy also happens to collect his own memorabilia, much of it from Mexican baseball. I wish the movie had stopped in its tracks to talk about Poh Boy's collection, but Smith - who's working form a script credited to Mark and Robb Cullin - chooses to insert action into the proceedings.

This leads to another miscalculation. The action - gunplay, car chases, etc. - doesn't mesh well with the comedy, a common problem in this sort of effort. Smith also messes up some of the sight gags. In an intentionally ridiculous attempt to disguise himself, Morgan's character appears in a cell phone costume. You've probably seen it in the movie's trailer, where it wasn't all that funny. On screen, the joke may be even less amusing, extending far beyond its breaking point.

To spice things up, Smith introduces a character played by Seann William Scott, still best known for his work as Stifler in the American Pie movies. Scott plays a thief whose real job is to push the plot along and provide repetitive gags in which he displays a couple of unashamedly juvenile ploys. Say this, though, Scott brings a bit of life to proceedings that sometimes feel weighed down by the deadening shtick that dominates the relationship between Willis and Morgan.

Safe to say that Willis breaks no new ground in Cop Out. I'm no Willis basher. I believe that the guy has real acting chops. Here, though, he relies on the ease with which he commands the camera and a reputation built in a vast library of action movies that saw him tempering violence with irony. The action hero as hipster.

There's more profanity than imagination on display in Cop Out, which doesn't maximize the talents of anyone involved. If this is supposed to be an affectionate, gory and amusing tribute to similar movies, it doesn't work. That would have been a job for a genre freak such as Quentin Tarantino or possibly for Keenen Ivory Wayans (Scary Movie and I'm Gonna Git You Sucka), a comedian who knows something about straight-ahead movie parody.

In Smith's hands, Cop Out resembles a song sung by someone who's tone deaf. The result: More pain than pleasure.

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