It seems weird to try to laugh at a movie called Let's Be Cops the same week that an American town burned in response to what appears to be an act of police criminality. Bad timing can't be held against a film, though. People loved The Heat last year, but would the sight of Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy dropping a black man off a balcony register as many yuks this week? Should it?
At the same time, Let’s Be Cops is actually about the power that two ordinary schmoes discover after dressing up as cops for a college reunion. (They think it's a costume party; it's actually a masked ball. You have to have some respect for a movie whose subtlest, weirdest joke winds up being its very premise.) Ryan (Jake Johnson) is a has-been football star and former actor who spends his spare time overzealously playing with young kids in the park; Justin (Damon Wayans Jr.) is a milquetoast game developer who gets regularly pushed around by his co-workers. As no-name schlubs prowling around glitz-obsessed Los Angeles, they’re barely noticed by the girls they like and easily harassed by black-clad Russian douchebags in slick SUVs.
Once they don the uniform, though, and spend a night pretending to be in law enforcement, their world changes. These men of no respect suddenly find themselves men of consequence. They tell a skateboarder to stop, and he comes to a sudden stop and goes flying off his board. They get into the best clubs. They confiscate random kids' weed. Bridal-shower parties jump them, kiss them, dry-hump them, and make them strip. It’s like one of those supernatural comedies from the 1990s where Jim Carrey would discover he suddenly had some superpower. They’re intoxicated by their newfound abilities.
At least, one of them is: After their one night as fake cops, Ryan brushes up on his police lingo and tactics off YouTube, buys a Crown Victoria on eBay, and convinces Justin to go along with him on a full-on fake patrol. They wind up getting more than they bargained for — because apparently, it didn’t occur to them that if you dress up as a cop and respond to actual 911 calls, some crazy shit might happen.
Devoid of context, Let’s Be Cops is mildly amusing stuff. Director Luke Greenfield is one of those comedy journeymen who makes low-rent efforts that often wind up better than they have to be. (The Animal and The Girl Next Door come to mind.) He has a flair for shooting physical humor: While most comedy directors cut quickly to keep things moving or to patch together bits of improv one-upmanship, he gives his performers plenty of room to contort themselves or to try weird bits of slapstick. (A bizarre turn by Natasha Leggero, playing the drunk, horny tenant of an apartment Ryan and Justin use for a stakeout, might be the funniest bit here.)
The film does occasionally threaten to come to life whenever it becomes about the power trip of authority. After Rob Riggle shows up, as an actual cop who befriends our heroes and spends time goofing around with them, you could be forgiven for thinking the film will start to go in a more touchy, provocative direction. But no: It pulls back, steering clear of anything that might be interesting or uncomfortable. Why? Because, duh, it’s a movie called Let’s Be Cops, starring Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans and directed by the guy who made The Animal.
Did I really want Let’s Be Cops to go in a genuinely provocative direction, to try for more troubling bits of “edgy” humor or satire? I’m not sure. It could be said that such things are no laughing matter, and that a film designed for easy laughs shouldn't go there. It’s probably true. Soon enough, the uncomfortable real-life resonances will fade away, and we’ll remember this movie mostly as a … agh, who am I kidding? We won’t remember this movie at all. Let’s Be Cops has its moments, but it in no way distinguishes itself.