Is Cop Out the Most Accurately Titled Movie of 2010? 

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Cop Out
Directed by Kevin Smith

Chewed out by the chief and suspended following a bungled investigation, NYPD blues Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan turn their attention in Cop Out to finding the thief (Seann William Scott) who stole the mint-condition 1952 Andy Pafko card handed down to Bruno by his father. Willis needs the card back so he can sell it to pay for daughter Michelle Trachtenberg's wedding, and thereby deprive his ex-wife's second husband the satisfaction of footing the bill. Along the way, Willis and Morgan discuss their respective marital tribulations. They spar verbally with rival partners Kevin Pollack and Adam Brody. They re-avow their mutual bro-love. And then, in the final scene, they catch the villain (actually, they shoot him) to earn back their shields.

As I hope this description implies, Cop Out is a fine title for Kevin Smith's new movie, a by-the-book buddy comedy about rule-breaking cops pretending to spoof the very clichés on which it depends. It's Smith's first time directing someone else's material, and his first time venturing out of New Jersey since Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (Cop Out takes place in Brooklyn and Queens) but you can see why he was attracted to Robb Cullen's and Mark Cullen's fanboy screenplay, which self-consciously borrows approximately thirty to forty percent of its dialogue from other motion pictures.

By temperament Smith is no ironist, and rather than skewer the formulas put before him—as Edgar Wright did with Hot Fuzz—he pays homage to them. Or perhaps I should say "hawmage," as Morgan's movie-quoting motormouth pronounces the word before conducting an interrogation in which he intimidates his suspect by reciting well-known tough guy one-liners. Funniest of all probably is Morgan's delivery of Roy Scheider's Jaws tagline—"we're gonna need a bigger boat"—with a white plastic ballpoint pen dangling from his mouth like a cigarette. But it's telling that that reference is so totally irrelevant, dramatically speaking. Casting into the dark for non-sequiturs with the carelessness of a Family Guy episode, Smith too often goes meta without any real point to make.

And yet there are fleeting moments in Cop Out that demonstrate why Smith is an underappreciated portraitist of American men in arrested development. In the film's best scene, for instance, Willis confronts the younger man who married his ex, in a restaurant. The cuckolder is played with an air of casual disdain by Smith regular Jason Lee, an actor who gives a master class in smarm simply by adjusting his shirt collar. It's anybody's guess whether Willis is drawing from personal experience (though, imagine what dinners with Ashton Kutcher must be like) but in that moment he rises to the occasion, showing some of his old yipee-kayee-motherfucker charm, and generating with Lee the kind of chemistry he's never able to establish with the showboating Morgan. Willis's performance here isn't quite as sedated as his appearance on Good Morning America earlier this week, to promote Cop Out, but it's damned close. Only occasionally does his relaxed straight man routine seem to inhabit the same universe as Morgan's annoying postmodern spaz, and it's usually when someone else, primarily Scott, is there to mediate.

For that reason alone, Cop Out is most entertaining at its margins, in its supporting cast and cameo players. Scott and Pollack both steal scenes, and Curb Your Enthusiasm's Susie Essman puts in a notable appearance as a heat-packing homeowner in Far Rockaway. Piece in hand, Essman seems willing to die harder than either of the two cowering leads.

Opens February 26

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