Back in 2012, Fox had what sounded like a sure-fire summer comedy hit on their hands: Neighborhood Watch, starring Vince Vaughn, Ben Stiller, Jonah Hill, and The IT Crowd’s Richard Ayoade as four desperate losers on a neighborhood watch patrol. The studio had posters and a trailer in theaters in February, when neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin — and suddenly, Neighborhood Watch didn’t sound so funny after all. The studio changed the title to The Watch and altered their ad campaign (less Jonah Hill threatening to shoot kids, more alien invasions), but to no avail; the picture was sunk by its own accidental yet spectacular bad timing. And now, the same studio finds itself in the same predicament again, releasing a zany comedy called Let’s Be Cops the very week when Americans are most likely to respond, “Hey, let’s not.”
It didn’t happen overnight. First came the death, in mid-July, of 43-year-old Eric Garner, an unarmed, asthmatic father of six accused of selling untaxed cigarettes, whom Staten Island police put in a chokehold — a move the NYPD outlawed in 1993, because it has a tendency to kill people, which is what happened here. Earlier this month, two police officers in Beavercreek, Ohio, shot and killed 22-year-old John Crawford for carrying a gun — a BB gun, on sale at the Wal-Mart where he was killed. On Monday, 25-year-old Ezell Ford was shot in the back and killed by LAPD police during an “investigative stop”; witnesses say he was lying on the ground and complying with the officers, though police insist the shooting occurred during a physical altercation, and that Ford was going after an officer’s weapon. That’s also the story Ferguson, Missouri police are attaching to the Saturday afternoon shooting of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown, but multiple witnesses report Brown was shot both in the back while attempting to flee, and had attempted to surrender, hands in the air. Brown’s shooting has prompted days of protests in Ferguson, whose fiercely militarized police force has spent the past couple of nights lobbing tear gas and rubber bullets at protestors and roughing up residents and press.
So you can understand how it’s maybe not the best moment to ask moviegoers to embrace the lighthearted story of a pair of kicked-around losers who decide to don police uniforms, and find that their fake badges help them attain the power and respect that has thus far eluded them.
The contrast was especially jarring last night on Twitter—which has become, sadly, the primary source of news and images out of Ferguson (since local authorities ordered network satellite trucks to leave the scene, which they can apparently just do). Between harrowing images of police armed to the teeth, perched atop tanks, taking aim at unarmed protesters with their hands up, and lobbing teargas at residents, we had, well, this (via @DanielSewellSTL):
And your trending topics looked like this (via @Chaplin_in_Hell):
Frankly, just about any scheduled message or sponsored tweet looked troublingly out of place during last night’s Dispatches from a Police State. But even sifting the words “Let’s Be Cops!” into this urban nightmare is stunningly tone-deaf move by Fox’s promo people, who were clearly asleep at the switch. The movie itself, as I wrote yesterday, has its own set of problems; add in the considerable baggage moviegoers will carry into the theater, and scenes of our heroes gleefully harassing pedestrians and joyriding towards fleeing kids take on far more weight than such a throwaway picture can even begin to sustain.
Look, Fox knows they’ve got a turkey on their hands; that’s why they buried Let’s Be Cops in a terrible August slot and declined to screen it for critics, relying instead on TV spots that, no fucking kidding, quote random Twitter users who want to see it. They’ve put their full faith in social media on this one (they’re even offering TV exposure to enthusiastic Twit-crits), and that’s a strategy that they’re surely hard-pressed to abandon.
But they’ve gotta do it. Movies die on the vine due to circumstances beyond their control all the time, and nobody’s gonna go broke if Let’s Be Cops loses some money (and it might not even do that—it’s budget is reportedly less than $20 million, a pretty easy return). By continuing to push the movie as they are and where they are, Fox is sliming the entire production. Maybe the day will come when we can again chuckle along with lightweight entertainment about wacky cops and the desperate need for power and respect that drives the most disturbed among them. But today is not that day.