[This piece contains plot details from Let's Be Cops. It is not a movie about its plot details, but there you have it.]
The word is out on the buddy comedy Let's Be Cops, starring Damon Wayans Jr. and Jake Johnson — both enormously charming actors on Fox's New Girl. And what is the word? That the movie is not good, and the movie is rather atrociously timed, given that we are not in a place in the news cycle where people are enormously amused by stories about goofball police officers threatening people with nonfunctioning guns.
It's all true: The movie is not good. It's full of nasty cultural caricatures and has perhaps the most conventionally structured third act imaginable, in which our heroes overcome their limitations and triumph and a couple of Russian bad guys get what's coming to them. And it's atrociously timed — unless, of course, you think it's perfectly timed.
The first act of Let's Be Cops introduces Ryan (Johnson) and Justin (Wayans) as men in the circumstances movies and television continue to find more fascinating than any other: They are men who feel like they are unsuccessful at being men. Justin is undercut at work and terrified to pursue the girl of his dreams. Ryan is washed-up and lost, humiliated by even little kids believing he's not worth anything. They are very different men: Ryan is extroverted, goofy, childlike; Justin is quiet, easily embarrassed, serious. But they have the same problem: utter powerlessness. No status. No respect.
And when they find themselves strolling down the street in police costumes (there's some hand-waving about how somehow everything they're wearing is totally real, except that the guns, while real, don't fire), they discover what it's like to bully strangers because you can. They discover what it's like to be a powerless man, frustrated by having no status and no sex life and nobody who just for heaven's sake does what you say, and suddenly find that you can frivolously, needlessly, capriciously holler at someone in the street and he will literally feel so compelled to comply that he'll fly off his skateboard and hurt himself.
They learn — Ryan especially — that other people's blind obedience is intoxicating. They have learned what it feels like to have power. Or, really, what it means to have authority. Finally, the world around him is doing what he damn well tells it to do. Justin learns the same. He can give orders just to give orders. Make guys he thinks are jerks stand and dance for him. Make them humiliate themselves.
It's not enough that they stand on the street practicing the fine art of "because I said so" policing, cracking up when people stop on the street just because they're told to. They also are eyeballed hungrily by all manner of women and, because it's the least ridiculous way the filmmakers could think of to justify the implication of sex on demand as a side benefit of being a police officer, a group of giggling women on a "scavenger hunt" that requires kissing a cop run up and literally hurl themselves at Ryan and Justin.
This is the premise of the movie: If a man — here, two men — found themselves powerless and unrecognized and disrespected, wouldn't it be hilarious if they took on the authority of law enforcement so that they could whimsically push around strangers, take out their negative feelings about their bosses on people who make the mistake of being on the street, commandeer cars for no reason except that they said so, and hoodwink women into making themselves available?
Wouldn't that be hilarious?
There is a moment in Let's Be Cops in which Ryan shows Justin the completely convincing fake police car he's created — vehicle from eBay, lights he added himself, police logos he printed at Kinko's and smoothed on until you can't tell the difference between this car and a real car. This scene is played for humor, for the way Justin is the "I don't know, man" friend, the one who thinks maybe this is all going too far, because maybe they're going to get in trouble.
To me, this was a scene of pure menace, about as lighthearted as watching a comedy where one of the heroes was building a dungeon to chain up women in response to his difficulty getting a date. The concept of a man in possession of a convincing police car is terrifying. I wanted to find it funny, I really did. These are two of my favorite actors on TV. I wanted to be with them, to understand that at another time in another place, it really would have been funny.
But it made me think about all the conversations we've had in recent days about what different people's encounters with the police feel like; how the police are friendly, perhaps overly stern fellows to some people and dangerous to others. Perhaps a fake police car is a hilarious idea to Luke Greenfield and Nicholas Thomas, who wrote this movie; to me, it's a point of no return where only a conclusion that satirized how easily authority (of any kind) can be abused could have saved the movie. It could still have been funny, but it would have had to be darkly funny, funny in a way that ended with Ryan locked up.
That's not where they're going with this.
Instead, the only lesson they really learn about this being unfair and wrong is that it's unfair to real cops. Rob Riggle plays such a real cop, who befriends the two along the way and who, at one point, must necessarily express his deep disappointment that they've dishonored the uniform by putting it on fraudulently. He takes offense. They feel chided. This is a moment of seriousness; it is a moment in which men become men. They become men, in short, by wanting to live up to the expectations of other powerful men. For this, for dishonoring real cops, they must apologize. They must make amends. This is the climactic moment of the film in its capacity as a feel-good story about two guys growing up.
Never do they feel embarrassed, and never are they upbraided, and never do they apologize, for going into houses where frightened people have called 911 and pretending to be responding police officers. Never are they embarrassed about the people whose cars they stole, whose pot they smoked, whose evenings they interrupted, just to feel powerful. Over the credits, we're shown more of those things, because those things are still funny. To become men, they are asked to deserve the status they pretended to have, not to recognize the wrongs they did with it. They are revealed as counterfeiters and frauds, thieves of status that others deserve, not bullies and criminals. It is their presumptuousness that must be atoned for.
And in the end, they get what they wanted: Justin gets the girl, Ryan gets approval and a sense of accomplishment, and they both have the power they initially lacked. By pushing around strangers, by experimenting with power, and then by being shamed by another, higher-status man and wanting to make him proud, they have become men. They have grown up.
Ryan still drives all over the sidewalk like a moron forcing people to jump out of the way, of course, but — spoiler alert — now he's a real cop. So now it's totally OK. He has, as he was ordered to do earlier, earned it.