Kevin Smith has fallen victim to what a lot of us occasionally fall victim to: insecurity. He’s been making movies for 15 years, and despite critical and cult success, Smith has never broken the $30 million ceiling. He’s a niche director. It didn’t matter how much of himself he put into a movie (see Chasing Amy), how much he amped up the ribald (see Zack and Miri Make a Porno) or how much he tried to inject heart into a film (see the misguided Jersey Girl), his movies couldn’t break that barrier.
I can sympathize with Smith’s frustration, and I think I understand why he decided to direct Cop Out. He looked at the script and he figured this is a Kevin Smith movie without a Kevin Smith sensibility. You can say whatever you want about Kevin Smith — and I know audiences are divided — but he’s not a dumb guy. He’s got a sophomoric sense of humor, but it’s balanced by slight sophistication, an understanding of human dynamics, and a touch of levity. He must have looked at Mark and Robb Cullen’s script and thought, “This is everything that I am not.” And then he thought, “If the movies I make can’t make more than $30 million, then it must be me.” So, he jumped at the chance to direct Cop Out because it meant the commercial success that’s always eluded him. Add Bruce Willis, and he’s guaranteed to make more than $30 million and find that box-office success he craves, right?
He’s still chasing Amy; it’s just that now Amy is mainstream success.
The jury’s still out, and my guess is that Bruce Willis doesn’t compensate for the deservedly terrible reviews that Cop Out has received and it bombs like no other Kevin Smith movie has, and Amy slips through his fat fingers again. Cop Out is an awful film, badly acted, atrociously scripted, and directed with Smith’s brand of mediocrity (people don’t love Smith for his directing capabilities; they love him for his scripts). Save for a few mildly amusing moments featuring Seann William Scott, Cop Out is completely irredeemable. Some may want to call it the worst movie of the year, and while I’d stop short of that (have you seen Leap Year?), it is the most disappointing, even if expectations are kept in check.
In it, Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan play best friends and police partners (there’s never any conflict between them, which is something of a no no in buddy cop flicks). (For convenience sake, I’m going to refer to the characters by the actors’ names.) The plot is ridiculously simple: Willis and Morgan have been suspended from the force for a bad bust. Nevertheless, Willis needs $48,000 to pay for his daughter’s wedding (Michelle Trachtenberg) and save face by avoiding having her step-father (Jason Lee) pay for it. Willis has a rare $80,000 baseball card; he attempts to sell it; he’s robbed (by Seann William Scott’s character); and that baseball card finds its way into the hands of a Latino gang-leader. Willis and Morgan have to track it down, pay for the wedding, and save the day.
If there’s one thing that Cop Out has in common with other Kevin Smith movies, it’s that it’s not about the plot. It’s about the exchanges, here between Willis and Morgan’s characters. Unfortunately, the chemistry is flat, and the humor is non-existent. It’s a series of the sort of jokes you’d expect to hear in a Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer movie — dick and fart jokes without an ounce of subtext to them. At one point, Tracy Morgan goes on a four-minute ad-libbed diatribe about his bowel movements, which ranks as one of the most painful scenes I’ve ever had to suffer through.
Cop Out is meant to be a throwback to the old-school ’80s cop movies, but it only succeeds in replicating the shoddy production values and the cheesy synthesizer music (it says a lot about the movie that the bad synth is the best part of the film). The action scenes are poorly directed; Bruce Willis walks through the movie like he’s one of those out-of-touch Dads trying to be cool and hip; and Tracy Morgan’s non-sequitur humor is forced even for Tracy Morgan. It really is a movie that’s embarrassing for everyone involved.
Most, including myself, have been quick to call Cop Out Kevin Smith’s sell-out movie. And it is, in part. But I don’t think it was about selling out. I think it was about finding some mainstream acceptance, even if it meant compromising his integrity, and even if it meant damaging his Clerks reputation. I think that Smith thought that a $50 or $60 million box-office success would validate him as director, that it would relieve some of that insecurity he’s been carrying for a decade and a half. He made it for the same reason he made Jersey Girl — he thought if he could mimic a mainstream sensibility, he’d get some mainstream acceptance.
What I don’t think that Kevin Smith understands, however, is that there are five million people who adore the ever living shit out of his fat ass. We will tolerate the bad movies and the missteps, as long as Kevin Smith continues to be genuine and candid. And as long as he continues to remain true to himself. More than any other director working, Smith engages with his fans, even if he doesn’t listen to them. And in my opinion, having five million people adore you is a lot substantially better than having 15 million people willing to part with $10 for two hours of meaningless entertainment (something that Cop Out doesn’t deliver). Five million people can’t give Kevin Smith the box-office respect he wants, but we can provide him the support he needs to continue doing what he professes to love: making the kind of movies that he wants to watch.
Cop Out is not one of those movies, and in the months and years ahead, if Smith continues to be as genuine and candid as he has been in the past, he will own up to it, just as he owned up to Jersey Girl. His fans will forgive him. And he can go back to making the under-performing movies that we respect.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He is forced to run obnoxious ads in order to remain so. If you would like to point out a spelling, factual, or grammatical error, please have the courtesy to email him. Otherwise, comments are very welcome below.