Last night I spent an amusing hour-and-a-half at a Kevin Smith entertainment. I listened to Smodcast (Smith podcast) 106, recorded two weeks ago, about what the writer-director called "my portly misadventure" when he was tossed off a Southwest Airlines flight for weighing too much. With his wife, Jennifer Schwalbach, alternately prodding and sedating him, Smith testifies that he is both a gentleman ("Death before discourtesy is my f---in' mantra") and a bit of a role model for fatties ("I do wear it fairly well"). Claiming he was treated "like a terrorist" and vowing revenge against the carrier (the Smodcast is titled "Go [Rude Condemnation], Southwest Airlines"), he says he fears the incident will haunt him to death and beyond: "That's what it's gonna say on my grave: Too Fat to Fly TFTF." The event was impromptu, engaging and oddly equitable; Smith has the gift of seeing himself as a figure not just of Jedi righteousnes but of fun.
But later last night, to sour this pleasant experience, I also had to watch Smith's new movie: the sluggish, formulaic Cop Out, which stars Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan as a couple of New York policemen tracking a drug lord and saving a kidnap victim while attending haphazardly to their respective family travails. "Nine years we been together," Paul (Morgan) says to his partner Jimmy (Willis) at the film's beginning. Indeed, the movie feels like a fourth or fifth installment of a cop-buddy franchise, when habit has replaced invention, and the stars' chemistry has evaporated. Willis puts his exasperated machismo on automatic pilot, as it was in last year's Surrogates. And Morgan... would someone explain to me why Tracy Morgan is funny, charming or in any way a plus to this planet?
For screwing up another cop-pair's drug bust, Jimmy and Paul have been suspended without pay. Worse, Paul suspects his lovely wife (Rashida Jones) of cheating on him. Worst, Jimmy's daughter is getting married and he needs to produce $48,000 for the wedding. Even worster, a thief (mouthy Seann William Scott) has swiped the one precious item Jimmy owns a 1952 Andy Pafko baseball card whose sale was going to finance the wedding. The theft leads Jimmy and Paul to the drug lord Poh Boy (Guillermo Diaz, who's good within the narrow guidelines) and his kidnap victim, sultry Gabriela (Ana de la Reguera), who... but why continue to parse the plot? I don't care, you don't care, the moviemakers certainly didn't care.
Smith's ninth feature is the first he hasn't written; the script was written by Robb and Mark Cullen, who've done a lot of TV series work (Heist, Lucky, Las Vegas). Smith has acknowledged he took this gig for the money and because he likes the genre. The first impulse is more evident here than the second. His strength has always been less in camerabatics, or even directorial competence, than in the creation of wayward characters with a little heart and filthy-funny mouths. He can't do that with a rote screenplay by other people. Blindfold any film fan during the closing credits, and he'd never know that the director was the auteur of Clerks, Chasing Amy and Dogma. The stylistic signature might as well be an inkblot.
All the innocent viewer would guess is that the people making the movie like making jokes about other movies; Smith does that, and so do too many other directors. Early on, there's a scene even if you haven't seen the movie, you've seen the clip a dozen times where Paul interrogates a suspect using tough-guy lines from other movies: Heat, Training Day, Jaws, Schindler's List, The Color Purple and finally Willis's own Die Hard. (Willis says, "I've never seen that one.") If the riff is Smith's contribution, it's both a testing and a flattering of his fans, and maybe a peace of meat for the Keviphiles to munch on while enduring the rest of Cop Out. What the film quiz does is reveal too much about the picture. Morgan plays a cop who knows police work only through cop movies, and that's exactly the way Smith and the writers know policemen.
I wish the real Kevin Smith had made this movie the man of wit, passion and sidewise humor who could turn a rant about airline personnel into an ad-lib apologia for being a tad on the heavy side. I wish he'd made that movie; I'd sure rather see the comedy thriller South by Southwest than the drab, flabby Cop Out.