Three seasons in, Fox’s New Girl remains one of the most consistently satisfying sitcoms on television—a screwball party of a show, a weekly hangout session with a bunch of endearingly insecure knuckleheads. The humor is less situational than conversational: These mismatched roomies seem more like friends than the Friends ever did, and the series peaks when it simply throws them all into a single setting, where they can bounce their issues off of each other. A similar spirit of dysfunctional camaraderie pervades the slapdash buddy comedy Let’s Be Cops, which stars two New Girl cast members, Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans Jr., as roommates who begin masquerading as Los Angeles police officers. Don’t be fooled by the high concept: The film very much conforms to the loose comedic style of its leads, its jokes often amounting to little more than the two actors bickering like school children and having embarrassingly public slap fights.
Should they ignore certain details, like character names and occupations, New Girl fans might even be able to pretend they’re watching the pilot for some Nick Miller and Coach spin-off series. Years after an injury cost him his athletic career, former college running back Ryan (Johnson) lives off the royalties of an STD commercial. His longtime roomie, Justin (Wayans), is doing only a little better; he’s the low man on the totem pole at a video-game company, pitching a hyper-real police simulation to his indifferent superiors. The two hit rock bottom when they confuse the masquerade theme of their college reunion for a costume-party theme, showing up dressed in LAPD uniforms. But when strangers on the street mistake them for real cops—women throwing themselves at them, men bowing to their false authority—the two embrace the lie, Ryan going as far as buying a cruiser on eBay and “promoting” himself to sergeant. The trouble begins when these fake officers get on the bad side of a psychotic, short-tempered crime lord (James D’Arcy).
On paper, Let’s Be Cops must have read like a project too dumb even for Seth Rogen or Jonah Hill. Director and cowriter Luke Greenfield—no relation, presumably, to New Girl costar Max Greenfield—often panders to the lowest common denominator, packing his film with ouch-my-balls slapstick, the usual tiresome gay-panic gags, and indifferently shot gun fights. (The shoot-’em-up finale will make discerning action-comedy buffs long for the parodic craftsmanship of Hot Fuzz.) There’s also a completely disposable love story between Justin and a budding makeup artist (Nina Dobrev, who has absolutely zero chemistry with Wayans), and lots of boring talk of self-actualization and manning up.
All of this would be more fatal if Let’s Be Cops didn’t operate almost exclusively as a showcase for the inspired rapport of its stars. Tweaking their small-screen routines only slightly, the two settle into a familiar but likable live-wire/straight-man dynamic. Wayans does the exasperated-partner act well, while still getting to cut loose during a scene of his character tripping out on crystal meth. And Johnson, who’s never funnier than when erupting into laughter himself, marries the man-child affability of Nick Miller to a more destructive streak of juvenile mischief. At times, the movie seems to exist for no other purpose than to collide these two personalities together, privileging their antagonistic banter above all else. But isn’t that the basic point of all buddy comedies?