Michael Mohan‘s latest film, Pink Grapefruit, premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and won the Narrative Jury Prize at SXSW. He most recently directed a series of branded films for Kate Spade starring Anna Kendrick and Lily Tomlin. Other credits include Save the Date, starring Lizzy Caplan, Alison Brie, and Martin Starr. Currently, he’s co-writing The Ends for the production company Big Beach. See more of his work at michaelmohan.com.
Real quick — it is not in my nature to publicly go out of my way to write negative things about a film or a filmmaker. This is someone’s livelihood. You never know the process that takes a film from its initial intentions and changes them for the worse on its path to the screen. However, this film has apparently already made its money back, and the ultimate reasons I was offended by the filmare especially relevant and important to me. So, with complete respect for everyone involved, here goes.
I don’t like not liking things. Generally speaking, when watching a movie, even if I’m clearly not the intended audience, I try to find some kernel that allows me to enjoy it on some level.
For example, recently I found myself watching a film called Caveman. It stars Ringo Starr as a banished caveman trying to fight the prehistoric elements and win his way back into his tribe. The film is atrocious and completely unfunny, but the score by Lalo Schifrin is really super funky and cool. I loved how it bounced along on top of the more banal desert visuals. And so, while watching the film I focused on that, and stored it in my memory bank in the event I could draw from it in some future work.
For me, the strongest bursts of inspiration come from unexpected places. It takes work not to be outright dismissive of something that, at first glance, isn’t for you, but an open mindset allows me to be influenced by things that I might otherwise not have been exposed to, whether it be some weird, forgotten misfire from 1981, or a totally mainstream comedy from today.
Going into Let’s Be Cops, I had heard that the reviews weren’t great. But I’m such a fan of some of the actors involved, especially Jake Johnson, that I went in with the same open mind that I try to approach everything with. I was determined to find something to love about it. Plus, what a great title, right?
Let’s Be Cops is about two guys who pretend to be policemen and get in over their heads. You get it. So the film began, and the first issue was that I really didn’t care for either of the main characters. One of them is an aspiring video game designer who wants to make a policeman video game that looks like every other policeman video game. The other was an aspiring actor who isn’t very good. Now, it wasn’t that these characters weren’t likable or sympathetic, it was that they were uninteresting. They didn’t seem to care all that much about their goals, so neither did I.
Even if I couldn’t relate to these characters, perhaps I could still laugh at them? Well, this was tricky. I could tangibly feel whenever the film switched from being scripted to being improvised. And the bigger “set-piece” jokes happened to the characters, rather than coming from the characters, like when one of our guys is suddenly tackled by a naked sumo wrestler in a hardware store (set to Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball”). The film was constantly asking me to suspend my disbelief, but the laughs just weren’t strong enough to warrant me doing so.
So this kind of humor and tone just isn’t for me. What about the actual filmmaking? Maybe there I could find something to like. Well, many of the scenes take place in the same apartment location, and much of the blocking from scene to scene resulted in a similar setup where the character was framed against the same background, a small Dead Weather poster hanging on a white wall. It’s the kind of thing you see in low-budget independent movies all the time when filmmakers are forced to collapse their coverage because of schedule constraints. But for a film boasting this level of resources, it was a missed opportunity to more fully define the characters, specifically by showing the space they live in.
And the attempts at visual panache that would pop up from time to time weren’t original. For instance, in one of the fight scenes, it suddenly goes to that “super slow-motion shot of a guy getting punched in the face.” You’ve seen that shot before, with the skin rippling from the blow. They do that same thing here, but haven’t made it their own. It’s borrowed style.
The music? Even more frustrating. So many of the cues were songs that have been used prominently in other movies. For instance, the biggest emotional moment for these characters is unironically set to Band of Horses’ “The Funeral.” For me, I consider that song to be off limits, simply because it’s been used to death. Dozens of movies, TV shows, and commercials feature characters walking in slow motion set to this exact song, so why would they want to do that here too?
For the record, I was actively trying to find something — anything— to appreciate, and I was totally failing at it. I couldn’t walk out because I had agreed to write this article. Many members of the audience were on their phones, and for the first time ever I did not blame them.
Then things got worse. About halfway through the movie, I started taking stock of all the female characters. That’s when my frustration turned to anger.
Here’s a quick rundown of all the female characters in Let’s Be Cops:
1. There’s a group of drunken girls at a bachelorette party who kiss our main characters as part of a scavenger hunt. These girls are traditionally attractive and our main characters think this is cool.
2. There’s a second group of drunken women who mistake our main characters for strippers. One of them says, “Shake those dicks.” Another one says, “I’m getting fucked tonight.”
3. There are a few drunk sorority sisters. They embody the “angry black woman” stereotype. One is named Precious, the other named JaQuandae. The latter kicks our main character in the balls. He then kicks her in the vagina.
4. There’s a low-ranking policewoman who works at the front counter of the police station. She has a scowl on her face and serves no function in the story.
5. There’s our romantic lead. She thinks our main character might be gay because of a hand gesture he makes. After being lied to for the entire duration of the movie, she instantly forgives him. She works as a waitress, but aspires to be a makeup artist.
6. There’s an office worker who agrees with everything her male boss says.
7. Lastly, there’s a drugged-out, horny woman, who tries to seduce our main characters by spreading her legs and licking a lollipop. Eventually one of our main characters kisses this woman, then literally drops her on the floor.
Now, I don’t think every single movie needs to pass the Bechdel Test, nor do I think that every stereotypical trope needs to be avoided, especially in comedy. But here there’s literally not one strong or smart female character. In fact, it’s the exact opposite, and it only serves to reinforce the gender stereotypes so many of us are trying hard to destroy. Some people might argue that this doesn’t matter if a film is aimed squarely at men, but I say that it matters even more (for instance, Edge of Tomorrow did a fantastic job of this with Emily Blunt’s character).
We live in a culture where this is acceptable; the film’s box-office take and B-grade CinemaScore rating shows that I am perhaps in the minority with these feelings. But I think audiences just don’t know what’s possible. One of the very problems with normalizing male dominance in cinema is that it’s a self-perpetuating process.
Like I said before, inspiration comes from the most unexpected places. I have to say I am wildly inspired after watching Let’s Be Cops. It may sound harsh, but this film represents the polar opposite of what I think films should be. It is polluting our cinemas with blatant unoriginality, shallowness and misogyny. Its success moves the needle in the wrong direction. And I feel more motivated than ever to try to move it back.