Cop Out posterRed lightThe title of Kevin Smith’s latest slacker comedy, Cop Out, is exactly that. It was going to be known by a more appropriate name – A Couple of Dicks – but pressure from studio executives put an end to that. Cop Out marks the first time Smith, a veteran yoof-speak writer/director, has directed a screenplay written by somebody else.

Following the bumbling adventures of two policemen with undiagnosed intellectual disabilities who don’t so much put the pieces of a case together as chew them up and fart them out, the chemistry between Jimmy (Bruce Willis) and Paul (Tracey Morgan) is reminiscent of Dumb and Dumber – only one is considerably dumber than the other and they both represent the long incompetent arm of the law.

The story begins with a familiar predicament: the pair, reprimanded for messing up a sting, are suspended from duty. This comes at a particularly unfortunate time for ol’ mumble grumble Jimmy, who needs to foot a massive bill for his daughter’s impending all-out wedding. He goes to trade in a valuable baseball card but is caught in a robbery and loses it. The card has been sold to a crook; Jimmy makes a deal for an exchange; high jinx and alleged hilarity ensue. The card is the story’s MacGuffin, although applying Hitchcock vernacular to a Kevin Smith movie just feels wrong.

An awkward opening “homage” interrogation scene accurately sets the tone for the blundering brand of comedy to come. Paul shakes down a crim by rehearsing lines from other movies sans rhyme or reason, shamelessly crash-diving into parodies of Scarface, Serpico, Schindler’s List and Die Hard, the latter of which Willis’s character hasn’t seen (ho ho). It’s not particularly funny stuff – inducing a snigger or two, maybe – but jeez, everybody involved sure works hard for laughs. The screen damn near buckles under the strain.

Tracey Morgan (from TV’s Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock) goes on to give a remorselessly daffy performance, providing the sort of perpetually dumb presence that may amuse for a scene or two but spread across a feature provides fingernails down the blackboard comedy.

Seann William Scott (aka Stifler from the American Pie movies) is a highlight as an acrobatic stoner thief, epitomizing the movie’s juvenile standard but also managing to squeeze genuine laughs out of it.

Bruce Willis is Bruce Willis, hard yakka and humourless as always, even when waves of stupidity are washing up around him. He looks a couple of decades too old for this nonsense, but then again Willis has looked too old for just about everything except for guns and whiskey since he started acting. This is part of the gruff Willis charm and it works every time, even when his films do not.

Critically, Smith never finds a comedic rhythm in Cop Out and keeps darting between jokes helter skelter, spraying them at audiences like Gatling gunfire in the dark, hoping something will connect. There are occasional laughs but not nearly enough to tide audiences over.

Smith has never been a dab hand at directing even flippantly staged action scenes and thus the stakeouts and shootouts in Cop Out are irritatingly clumsy, and feel like they were inserted with a crowbar during post production (btw, Smith was also the film’s editor). His best asset has always been dialogue, though in Cop Out the screenplay is much less verbose than Smith’s usual hamburger-with-the-lot vocab and the words aren’t his.

One of the giveaways of a bad comedy is the recurring bad joke syndrome: the pun that wasn’t funny the first time repeated persistently like sound bytes from a politician staying “on message.” The homage interrogation skit wasn’t funny enough for a second helping but alas we get it, along with the one where the foreign lady says “hi” at inappropriate times, to the reaction of pin drop silence mixed with an awkward laugh or two.

Kevin Smith, who turns 40 this year, is the Peter Pan of Hollywood filmmakers – the fat kid who never grew out of bubble gum, poo jokes, pop culture and street talk. Or perhaps Smith is Hollywood’s Benjamin Button, his body of work suggesting increasing immaturity as he gets older, the fine achievements of his first three features (Clerks, Mall Rats and Chasing Amy) regularly eclipsed by the gunk that followed. It’s not all bad, not by a long shot – Clerks II and Zack and Miri Make a Porno are easily maligned but well written and funny character based comedies and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back and Dogma are spotted with moments of effective low brow humour.  His rhythm, however, has felt off for a long time, and Cop Out doesn’t buck the trend.

Cop Out’s Australian theatrical release date: March 18, 2010