So, I laughed my ass off at 21 Jump Street, but the fear-of-gay-sex jokes got under my skin as I started writing the review. I don’t think I would have used the headline that LGBT Weekly ran with the review — “Excessive homophobia dulls this absurd comedy” — but it’s accurate. The version that ran here is a bit truncated, so here’s the unabridged version.
There seems to be two ways to turn a TV series into a movie. One way is to take the original show seriously and try to replicate the good stuff while making it grittier and widening the scope. This worked for The Untouchables and The Fugitive, while it was abject failure for The Mod Squad and The Last Airbender. The other way is to admit that the original show was cheesy or updating it would be impossible, so you make a wacky, preferably filthy comedy doused in enough irony to make John Waters smirk. The few times this was successful was in The Addams Family movies and, to a lesser extent, Starsky & Hutch and Charlie’s Angels. The movie based on the pretty lame 1980s cops-undercover-as-high-school-kids show 21 Jump Street (only remembered for giving Johnny Depp his start) takes the second tact, and – what a relief – it works. Okay, it more than works. It’s really, really funny – as long as you ignore the homophobia.
As in the original show, 21 Jump Street refers to the address of the headquarters of a squad of cops who go undercover as high school students to bust drug rings, chop shops, and so on. A slimmed down Jonah Hill plays Schmidt, a smart, but pudgy and awkward cop, partnered with Jenko (Channing Tatum), a dumb, but absurdly studly cop. In high school, they were nemeses, but in the police academy they realized their strengths and weaknesses were complementary, and they became best friends. After they make a series of ridiculous errors trying to arrest members of a drug gang, they are transferred to 21 Jump Street, which is run by self-proclaimed Angry Black Man Captain Dickson, played with great irony by Ice Cube. He assigns them to root out a drug dealing operation that may or may not have caused the death of a student. In the last seven years since they graduated, what is cool has changed, and suddenly Schmidt makes friends and Jenko is the nerd, and their attempts at fitting in reaches a level of vulgar absurdity that would never be allowed on TV.
As with most broad comedies, the plot is secondary to the jokes. Much of the humor in 21 Jump Street is physical, and Jonah Hill is shameless and expert at using his body as a punching bag, both actual and metaphorical. He also does comically outraged quite well, too. Channing Tatum is playing dumb, which means he was perfectly cast, but he also does a fine job lobbing one-liners and reacting to the ever-increasing absurdity of the case. Hill and Tatum are as mismatched as Laurel and Hardy, and their friendly and sometimes not-so-friendly fights are gleeful fun to watch.
The supporting cast is roundly great. As Schmidt’s love interest Molly, Brie Larson plays the same wise-beyond-her-years character as she did so expertly in The United States of Tara. James Franco’s brother Dave does a great job being beautiful, arrogant, and outmatched as the high school drug dealer. Rob Riggle, as the track coach, is as crass as The Office’s Ellie Kemper, playing the chemistry teacher hot for Jenko, is horny.
But an abnormally high – even for a vulgar, hard R comedy – percentage of the jokes in 21 Jump Street involve fear of gay sex, from anal sex as humiliating punishment to male-on-male oral sex as torture. While Schmidt and Jenko state clearly that they don’t dislike gay people, their and the film’s extensive use of gay sexuality as something to mock and fear belies a homophobic subtext that isn’t very funny at all. The film is ultimately about male friendship, and it’s sad that the filmmakers, including the screenwriter of the wonderful and progressive Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, felt the need to basically scream “no homo!” throughout the movie to make such a theme palatable to their target audience.
21 Jump Street
Directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller
Written by Michael Bacall
Starring Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, and Brie Larson
Opens March 16
At your local multiplex