Kevin Smith’s “Cop Out” – Painful and forgettable.

Poster for "Cop Out"

I have an abiding respect for Kevin Smith. Between college Q&As, prolific tweeting, and a hilarious podcast with his longtime producer and friend Scott Mosier, here is a man who wears his entire life on his sleeve. A man as likely to talk about his first sexual experience as the time he accidentally pooped in the shower. A man who constantly admits the breadth of his ignorance, never stops calling himself a fat bastard, and freely admits that his writing is terrible and that he has no directorial style. But despite his posturing, he has proven himself a reliably effective screenwriter and an occasionally brilliant director. He’s carved out a well-fitting niche of self-promotion through self-deprecation, and on those rare occasions when he isn’t funny, he’s nearly always endearing.

And then he goes and does something like this.

Cop Out (originally called A Couple of Dicks) is the story of Jimmy (Bruce Willis) and Paul (Tracy Morgan), a pair of no-nonsense cops who play by their own rules. Naturally, “their own rules” amount to a level of brutality and incompetence seldom seen outside of airport security, and they’re immediately suspended. And do they have to give up their badges and guns? Of course. And is Tracy Morgan still dressed up like a giant foam-rubber cell phone as the captain bawls them out? You betcha.

After their suspension, they keep right on acting as cops, trying to retrieve a priceless stolen baseball card from a ruthless drug kingpin, Poh Boy (Guillermo Diaz), who wants to take over the entire east coast drug trade by way of a magical USB thumbdrive. They join forces with Dave (Seann William Scott), an incompetent parkouring thief who spends nearly every moment verbally abusing them. Or repeating whatever they say. Oh, and there’s a kidnapped drug moll…or possibly a nun (Ana de la Riguera), whose sole language is “fuckin’ Spanish”. Nearly every one of her lines will call you out for the hijo de puta you are, and she serves almost no purpose in the film except as a comely MacGuffin.

Still from "Cop Out"

The first act is frankly painful to sit through… At several points, the characters stop just short of winking at the camera as they announce that all of their tactics and dialogue are stolen from better movies (“It’s called an homage!”). But even as Tracy Morgan gradually started to amuse me, Bruce Willis seemed completely unsure of what movie he was in. And before too long, his confusion spread to the audience, as the plot took one bizarre turn after another. Seann William Scott is amusing, but this character is nothing new for him, and it’s never entirely clear why these two cops would involve themselves with him. Guillermo Diaz is almost completely wasted in this film, losing most of the charm and dark humor he showed on Weeds in favor of playing a generic, humorless dick. And the less said about Rashida Jones’ vacuous subplot, the better.

I don’t want to spend much more time on the plot of this film because frankly, it doesn’t seem like writers Robb and Mark Cullen did either. The film strives to be a buddy cop flick in the tradition of Beverly Hills Cop, but ends up being something more akin to Showtime or Hollywood Homicide. And I can’t elaborate on that comparison any further, because like those films, Cop Out is almost completely forgettable.

It is only because I’ve liked Smith’s other films that I even feel like talking about this one. He didn’t write it himself, opting instead to work with the pair that wrote an abyssmal Showtime pilot called Manchild for Smith and several others (his subplot is just about the only funny part of it). The action direction is definitely something new for the filmmaker, but it’s nothing terribly complex, given the limited demands of this genre. Dave Klein’s cinematography is striking at times (this is the guy who shot Clerks?!), but the look of the film is wildly uneven, with some scenes seemingly taken out of completely different films.

The film inexplicably gets fun at around the second hour, but I certainly can’t call it good… At the end of the day, Cop Out seems little more than a bewildering evolution for its filmmaker. And like the Neanderthal before it, I can’t help but hope it will wander off into some corner of Eastern Europe to die.

Sorry, Kev. I hope you get writing again soon. If your next film really is as good as Chasing Amy, I’ll happily give this one a pass.

FilmWonk rating: 3 out of 10

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Scott Hicks’ “The Boys are Back” – A Portrait of Fatherhood

Kevin Smith’s 2003 film Jersey Girl was an adept depiction of the changing relationship between a father and his child after the tragedy of the mother’s untimely death. It was not a perfect film, but it demonstrated some real progress for Smith as a filmmaker, and contained some noteworthy performances. I mention this for two reasons… First, because Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez’s previous collaboration ensured that Smith’s film would not be given a fair shake by audiences or critics when it came out (notwithstanding Lopez’s death 15 minutes into the film), and second, because Shine director Scott Hicks has succeeded in crafting an even better take on the same concept.

Loosely adapted from The Independent writer Simon Carr’s autobiography, The Boys Are Back tells the story of Joe Warr (Clive Owen), a sports writer who lives in Australia with his wife Katie (Laura Fraser) and six-year-old son Artie (played by newcomer Nicholas McAnulty). His teenage son, Harry (George MacKay) lives with his ex-wife in England. Following his wife’s sudden death from late-stage cancer, Joe struggles with his grief, his job, and how to comfort and take care of Artie. They are eventually joined by Harry, who comes from England to see his father, seemingly for the first time since he was Artie’s age.

The film excels in its tone and pacing. It deals with some weighty issues, but the story moves right along when it needs to, and never veers too far into somber territory without coming back to show us something genuinely delightful. This variable emotional curve could easily have come off as jarring, bipolar, and seemingly not serious enough for the film’s subject matter, but it manages to avoid these problems.

Much of the film’s bright tone is owed to the gorgeous scenery of Hicks’ native Adelaide, as photographed by cinematographer Greig Fraser. Fraser, incidentally, was a second unit director of photography on Baz Luhrmann’s 2008 film Australia, whose cinematography relied as much on digital arts as on the natural beauty of the continent. This film sticks almost solely to the latter. From the roads winding through the rolling, windswept hills to the grand, sweeping vistas of the South Australian coast, the scenery feels in every way like a love letter to Hicks’ home. And as a backdrop to such an earnest personal narrative, it sets the tone of the film rather well.

The pacing and backdrop of the film are further complimented by Hal Lindes’ breathtaking score. The cardinal sin of a musical score is to be overbearing, vomiting musical flourishes to lend emotion to a scene that is lacking, or step on the emotion that is already there. This score comes very close to that line once or twice in the film, but never crosses it. I found it impossible to suppress a grin during a scene (some of which is in the trailer below) in which Joe drives his SUV down the beach with Artie draped across the hood and windshield, laughing and screaming happily. If the score had relented in its delight long enough to let me fully think through this scene of patent child endangerment, I may well have sided with the myriad of people on the beach screaming that Joe is a lunatic.

Boys will be boys, and a friend of mine is fond of the theory that this is why the population begins skewed slightly male, but starts to even out early on (skewing female by age 40*). Any of my boyhood jaunts across the monstrous boulders of an oceanside jetty or through the branches of an alarmingly tall tree could have rendered me a similar statistic, but this is what fathers do with their sons, and this is one of the things the film captures so well.

Allan Cubitt’s script and Clive Owen’s performance paint a portrait of a father who is deeply devoted to his children, but is nonetheless quite flawed. He left his elder son when he was six, and prior to his wife’s death, he was absorbed in work. His reward is one grief-stricken son that he barely knows how to comfort and another halfway around the world that he barely knows at all. Once both sons are thrust into his exclusive care, he adopts an almost entirely permissive parenting style of “just say yes”, seemingly the product of wishful thinking and a deep desire to protect his kids from further unhappiness. This style works…with variable success, and the two child actors play their parts quite believably.

While figuring out how to be an effective dad, Joe deals with all the other struggles you might expect – relationships with the boys’ grandparents and his ex-wife, a budding romance with a single mother at Artie’s school, the return to his job as a sports writer… All of these issues were handled deftly by the film, with the exception of his job. In a long third act that was already trying to cover a myriad of topics, most of the job-related scenes fell flat and seemed out of place tonally with the rest of the film.

But none of these scenes detracted too much from the film’s great strength, which was its depiction of relationships – between Joe and each of his sons, between the sons as new half-brothers, and between this newly reunited family and the rest of the world. This film dares to ask what hope this new and semi-functional family has of staying together under the circumstances, and manages to thoroughly earn its sanguine message by the end.

FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10