Archive for Wednesday, March 13, 2002

Showtime’ takes aim at reality TV craze

(PG-13) **

March 13, 2002

Since when did Robert De Niro become known as a comedian?

The quintessential New York actor earned his reputation one gritty role at a time through playing an organized crime kingpin in "The Godfather: Part II" to a self-destructive boxer in "Raging Bull." But beginning somewhere around 1988's "Midnight Run," it became obvious that the Oscar winner's intensity could take him beyond mob flicks and biopics into the often trickier world of comedy.

Now with "Analyze This," "Wag the Dog" and "Meet the Parents" under his belt, modern viewers have grown more accustomed to seeing De Niro scold Ben Stiller about a lost cat than shoot Harvey Keitel in the stomach.

In "Showtime," a reality show twist on the buddy-cop genre, De Niro uses his serious demeanor to generate plenty of laughs. Unfortunately, his performance is the only thing about this routine vehicle that seems to be grounded in the real world. The mindless movie is disposable Hollywood fodder made the way only Hollywood can: with a $90 million budget and A-list stars.

De Niro portrays Detective Mitch Preston, a hard-headed, no-frills officer whose attitude accidentally gets his L.A. department in trouble with a litigious television network. To soothe the situation, Mitch is pressured by his superiors into filming a pilot series called "Showtime," which aspires to be a mixture of "Cops" and "The Real World."

However, TV producer Chase Renzi (Rene Russo) believes the terse Mitch needs to be partnered up with a "hotshot, minority type," and recruits beat cop Trey Sellars (Eddie Murphy). The brash-but-bumbling patrolman has always wanted to be an actor and has the head shots to prove it. Of course, the two men don't get along. (Never mind that Preston already has a partner or that Sellars isn't actually a detective yet; these are just some of the ignored details that help make the picture's setup more contrived than "The Time Machine.")

What prevents "Showtime" from exploiting its reasonably funny potential is that it never settles on what type of movie to be. It has too much real violence for a zany parody of the reality TV craze which is already old hat by now, anyway. And it's far too fakey to pass as a film about actual officers who are put in an unlikely position.

From the exaggerated depiction of TV networks to police procedures that blatantly violate all kinds of civil rights, ethical boundaries and laws of physics, "Showtime" is one big cartoon. This is kind of a problem when the bulk of the humor is intrinsically derived from throwing "real people" into contrived situations.

Murphy is no more capable of portraying an authentic cop than he is of going to the grocery store without a posse of Hollywood hangers-on. And while his fame-hungry character is deliberately written as very broad, Murphy always comes off like a movie star playing a cop playing an actor. The former "Saturday Night Live" icon could take some advice from De Niro about how to deliver a punchline without mugging.

By the time the mismatched partners find themselves pursuing a swarthy crime lord who is importing shipments of a deadly new gun into the city, the situation has exhausted its comic potential. At this point, nobody needs to see another car chase set to the overused strains of James Brown's "I Got You (I Feel Good)."

"Showtime" does feature two of the most amusing cameos of the year. One whose very description would blow the gag, and the other involving William Shatner. The paunchy "T.J. Hooker" veteran plays himself in a hilarious montage where he tutors De Niro and Murphy about the proper way to jump on the hood of a moving car and test if a confiscated package is cocaine by dipping a pinky into the powder and putting it in the mouth.

"There's a reason why cops don't taste cocaine," De Niro's deadpan character corrects him. "It could be cyanide."

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