As Seen on TV
So you’re channel surfing in the middle of the night and you come across — probably on Encore or Starz! or some other channel that tries to create excitement with an exclamation point — you come across car crashes and stuff blowing up and guns, guns, guns, and reluctant-buddy cops who snipe at each other constantly (one of whom declares that he’s getting too old for this shit, the other one who takes nothing seriously) and you think to yourself: Huh. I didn’t know DeNiro made a lethal-weapon movie. This has gotta be ten years old — how did I miss this?
That’s what Showtime feels like, like it fell through a time warp from the vicinity of 1991, back when there might have been something satirical to say about reality TV and the pornography of big-screen violence. Or maybe not. Because Cops debuted on Fox in 1989, and Hollywood has played ultraviolence as funny since the mid 80s. It must be a gentle, peaceful alternative universe the creators of this film come from, one in which pop culture has not yet become a parody of itself, an impossible-to-satirize cesspit of the worst humanity has to offer. How does one possibly send up an entertainment culture in which Temptation Island already exists?
Someone once described the ultimate high-concept movie thus: “He’s the Pope. She’s a chimp. They’re cops!” It’s funny cuz it’s absurd, cuz it pokes fun at Hollywood for the ridiculousness of its output, cuz it might make an amusing movie, cuz even if it didn’t, it tells us all we need to know about the movie. And it’s useful because it can separate the must-see high concepts from the don’t-bothers. Describe Showtime in these terms, and it’s: “DeNiro’s a cop. Murphy’s a cop. They’re cops… on TV!”
See, there’s just nothing funny about it. TV producer Chase Renzi wants to follow around LAPD detective Mitch Preston with a camera after he, wait for it, attacks members of the media. He nearly kills a news cameraman and causes a major PR disaster for the department, so to make nice he has to agree to this TV thing. It’s sort of a stretch, and it doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense, but Rene Russo (The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, Lethal Weapon 4) as Chase and Robert DeNiro (15 Minutes, Meet the Parents) as Mitch make a go of it. I imagine there aren’t too many roles around for a 40something actress with great comic flair and a reluctance to take her clothes off, so you can hardly blame her for showing up for this. And DeNiro seems to be having fun tweaking his tough-guy persona, and if you’re not tired of that yet (I’m not, at least — I love DeNiro to tiny pieces), there’s plenty of guilty pleasure to be had here.
Eddie Murphy (Shrek, Nutty Professor II: The Klumps) contributes greatly to whatever enjoyment might be drawn from Showtime, too, though I can’t help but be embarrassed for him. As Trey Sellars, LAPD patrol cop and wannabe actor, he weasels his way into Chase’s TV-cop show — also called Showtime, which also doesn’t make a lot of sense: Why would you call a TV show about real cops Showtime? She likes him because Mitch’s “modern-day cowboy” needs a sidekick, maybe, you know, “a funny ethnic type.” If that’s supposed to be a damning indictment of TV executives, what does it mean that Murphy’s Trey is also this movie’s “funny ethnic type”?
What does it mean that, after DeNiro’s Mitch tells schoolkids that police work is not all guns ablazin’ and cars blowing up at the slightest provocation, Showtime is all guns ablazin’ and cars blowing up at the slightest provocation? What does it mean that Mitch and Trey’s boss is a movie-stereotype police captain? Are we supposed to take an almost entirely unironically clichéd reluctant-buddy-cop action movie as some sort of mockery of clichéd reluctant-buddy-cop action movies? Why should we?
There’s some small attempt at actual satire: William Shatner plays himself, as a consultant on Chase’s Showtime, teaching Mitch and Trey how to act like TV cops. That’s a genuinely funny thing: T.J. Hooker giving Robert DeNiro acting tips. But like the rest of the film, it’s shockingly underwritten: bad guys have little motivation other than being clichéd action-flick bad guys, entire scenes feel like they’ve been left out, and the few moments of real, original humor come and go and are never capitalized on.
But when an appearance by William Shatner is the biggest cause for celebration, you know a movie’s in trouble. Showtime‘s in trouble.