All For Show 

Following the beat of Showtime.

In an episode of Cops last year, a police officer encountered a man who had been beaten up by a female friend because he had a voodoo altar. The woman had left the scene and the man had locked himself out of his house, so the police officer helped him get in through a window. Then, with as much cajoling as is humanly possible, the man convinces the officer to come in and see his pet snakes. The cop admits to being very afraid but goes in to see the man's collection of 20 or so snakes all heaped in one slithering mass on the floor of a closet. Now that's entertainment.

Then there's Showtime, a smarter-than-average comedy (emphasis on average) starring Robert De Niro, Eddie Murphy, and Rene Russo. Packaged as a spoof on reality programming, Showtime is more of a spoof on buddy/cop films (think the Lethal Weapon series, both Rush Hours) yet is a buddy/cop film (think all three Screams). It cannibalizes itself with a big fat wink.

De Niro stars as Mitch Preston, a gruff, longtime LAPD detective. How gruff? After a drug bust gone wrong, Mitch shoots out the lens of a TV camera, garnering bad publicity for the department and the promise of a lawsuit. But Chase Renzi (Russo), producer for the network that owns the shot-out camera, gets a whiff of a hit. She wants gruff, she wants bullets, she wants Mitch in exchange for dropping that pesky lawsuit.

Mitch balks but money talks, so the next order of business is finding Mitch a partner. It's an easy enough task as Trey Sellars (Murphy) puts himself right under Chase's nose. Trey is a patrol officer, though he wants to be an actor. That he failed a recent audition to play a cop is no big thing. That Trey inadvertently sabotaged Mitch's drug bust (which led to the bullet in the camera, which led to the producer being up in his face) is a big thing. Mitch despises Trey, and that is what they call tension, and that is what they call good television.

The point of the program, titled Showtime part of a catchphrase Trey uses to pump himself up before a bust: inhale, exhale, repeat "It's showtime!" is to keep it real. What's real is tracking down the maker of a supergun that can not only pierce a bullet-proof vest but also destroy a house. The detective stuff, however, needs to be squeezed in somewhere between shooting the show's promos and the mandatory confession-booth time.

If you're looking for skewered conventions, Showtime's got them: talk of a "loose cannon," conflict with the police chief in which a desk gets pounded, the why-I'm-a-cop speech, sliding over a car hood, etc. Plus the TV execs are aptly wired. Chase is there to record Mitch and Trey as they are, but if Mitch's apartment doesn't quite pop out on camera, what's wrong with giving the place a makeover complete with dog? The sugar on top comes in the form of cameos by William Shatner and Johnnie Cochran. Shatner plays himself, using his experience on T.J. Hooker to direct the men in the show's commercials. He counsels on the importance of the eyebrow arch and the gamely belly-flops on a car hood for the sake of art. Cochran's part came about when an actor playing one of De Niro's collars ad-libbed that he was going to hire Johnnie Cochran, and so the filmmakers did. Undoubtedly charismatic, Cochran seems stifled here (and shouldn't he be in Memphis suing somebody?).

At the beginning of the movie, Mitch is shown scrawling out the tenets of police work. He tells his audience that he has never in his 28 years on the force jumped from one roof to roof or done much of what is seen on television. The joke, of course, is that, like checking items off a list, he proceeds to do most of what he's denounced. These riffs are all logically funny, but none is a howler. And there's no arguing with the performances. Both De Niro and Murphy are good, and Russo is particularly crisp. But, ultimately, Showtime is hemmed in by the very devices it mocks.

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