A big part of the infectiousness of “New Girl” is the good time that Zooey Deschanel, Jake Johnson, and the rest of the cast have with what seems to be a particularly loosey-goosey brand of improv. That’s not always the case with the line-o-rama approach — you watch a movie like “Anchorman 2” and what’s hyped as freewheeling comedic brilliance can just as often feel tediously unpolished and self-indulgent.
So you hear that Johnson and his TV castmate Damon Wayans Jr. are starring in “Let’s Be Cops” as lovable losers mistaken for LAPD officers, and you’re hopeful. Maybe that sitcom-honed screwiness is just the thing to give the decent-sounding buddy cops riff some added punch.
Oh, what a rotten time for Johnson and Wayans to get all straight-arrow on us. The pair and director Luke Greenfield (“The Girl Next Door”) might be shooting for outrageous, but their aim seems handcuffed to the script, and the script just isn’t all that funny once you get beyond what’s been revealed in trailers.
Johnson and Wayans play Ryan and Justin, roommates whose Hollywood dreams aren’t looking promising after nearly a decade of struggling. Less-than-confident Justin never knows what to say when he’s trying to pitch ideas at the video game company where he works as an underling, or when hot waitress Josie (Nina Dobrev, “The Vampire Diaries”) comes to his table. Washed-up college football hero Ryan, now a wannabe actor, made his biggest splash in a commercial for herpes meds. Trying not to sweat it for a night, they head to a costume party convincingly dressed as police officers. Oops, make that a dressy masquerade party — one more sock to their self-esteem.
But on the shameful slog home, they learn something: People treat them differently in uniform. Club girls dig them. Weed smokers nervously hand over their contraband. Before long, fired-up Ryan has snagged a patrol car on eBay and is getting them into real crime fighting situations. They lend backup to a legit cop (Rob Riggle) and tangle with a nasty gangster (James D’Arcy of A&E’s “Those Who Kill,” determined to be more than a tracksuit and an accent). None of this is as riotously zany as it wants to be.
We do catch what feels like spontaneous delivery from Johnson in a stakeout scene, as the guys set up watch from the apartment of an oversexed fruit loop (Natasha Leggero) who’s tripping over herself, lewdly, to lend a hand. She’s like “an acrobatic angel,” Johnson goofily drools. It’s a too-fleeting hint of the acrobatic repartee we came to see.
Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.