We've been on this beat before

Review: `Showtime' has some - just not enough - funny moments as it spoofs reality TV.

March 15, 2002|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

What's this world coming to, when Robert De Niro and Eddie Murphy are not the best things about a movie?

But that's what happens in Showtime, a humorous but much too predictable send-up of reality TV and the sheer banality of it all.

The movie stars De Niro as Mitch Preston, the tough veteran detective who has no room for nonsense, and Murphy as Trey Sellars, the showboat cop who thinks being on TV is just grand. But the real stars here, the two guys audiences will talk about the most, are that venerable ham William Shatner, who plays himself, and T.J. Cross as ReRun, a small-time hood in way over his head (who actually gets Johnny Cochran as his lawyer!).

Not that De Niro and Murphy aren't funny; they are, just not consistently - or outrageously - so. Brought together to star in a TV reality program purporting to show how police really work, Mitch and Trey spend most of the movie acting like oil and water and refusing to mix. Apparently, that makes for great TV; the resulting show, introduced by Trey's affected catchphrase, "It's Showtime!" becomes a ratings hit.

Of course, the two eventually rub off on each other. Trey starts taking his police work more seriously, while Mitch learns to lighten up, and even takes to a bit of showboating himself (in one of the movie's least convincing sequences). Their ability to work together, even as the TV cameras continue shining in their faces, is put to the test when a bad guy with a really big gun threatens to unleash it on the streets of L.A.

De Niro, whose comic chops have been on wider and wider display since Analyze This, doesn't really do anything different here, but he's still funny. Sometimes leaden dialogue undermines his efforts, but he's learned well a comic truth that's been around since Buster Keaton: when in doubt, underplay. Especially when you've got Eddie Murphy a few feet away from you, it never hurts to let others work for laughs.

But neither marquee actor shines brightly enough to carry the movie; there's too much reliance on playing the same, safe note over and over. Thank goodness for the bit players.

Shatner, who has almost turned overacting into an art form - he's been so good at it for so long - takes self-awareness to new levels of hilarity. As William Shatner, an actor brought in to teach Mitch how to play a real cop onscreen, he steals the movie. Watching him trying to teach Preston how to jump on and roll off a car hood - remember T.J. Hooker? - makes for the funniest movie moment of 2002. The only regret is that Shatner doesn't hang around longer.

Fortunately, Cross shows up later to inject life into a flagging script. The jailed ReRun holds the only clues to a case that Mitch and Trey are struggling to solve. Disguised as a self-help counselor anxious to get a prisoner to unburden himself on-camera, Trey meets with ReRun. Murphy is amusing, but holds back, never unleashing the full force of his comic persona. (This happens frequently throughout the film; perhaps Murphy was intimidated by having the great De Niro on the same set?). But Cross lets loose, upstaging Murphy and giving the scene a comic energy missing for most of the film.

Those two scenes of comic genius aside, Showtime is strictly stuff we've all seen before: the crusty, by-the-book vet teamed with the flashy, shallow upstart; the high-speed, high-caliber chase through the streets of L.A.; the foreign-accented bad guy, a man of few words; the scene in the nightclub, where the good guys meet the bad guys and mayhem breaks out.

In fact, Showtime seems almost determined not to bring anything new to the party. Director Tom Dey (Shanghai Noon) is stolid, even when his movie could use a solid shot of anarchy. And Rene Russo, as the clueless TV producer constantly getting on Mitch's nerves, simply isn't given much to work with; take her out of the film, and you'd barely notice.

But the big problem here may be the difficulty of parodying a parody. Anyone who's ever watched TV's Cops knows that show already is funny enough without scripting the jokes.

Showtime

Starring Robert De Niro, Eddie Murphy, Rene Russo

Directed by Tom Dey

Released by Warner Bros. Pictures

Rated PG-13 (Violence, adult language, drugs)

Running time 92 minutes

SUN SCORE: ** 1/2

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