Dude, don’t say, “Dude, you’re a fag.”

22-jump-streetWhen I reviewed 21 Jump Street two years ago, I praised the broad comedy about cops going undercover in high school for being very funny. But I was unnerved by how much of the humor was firmly based in homophobia. Officers Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) are such good friends that they had to mock gay sex to make their friendship not seem too close, or inappropriately gay. I wrote that “an abnormally high – even for a vulgar, hard R comedy – percentage of the jokes in 21 Jump Street involve fear of gay sex. 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, felt the need to basically scream ‘no homo!’ throughout the movie to make such a theme palatable to their target audience.” The movie was a big enough hit to garner a sequel, and I was worried that 22 Jump Street, in which our heroes go undercover in college, would continue the perpetuation of my sexuality as one big joke.

I was particularly concerned when Jonah Hill – who is one of the film’s stars, producers, and writers – was caught on tape by TMZ calling a paparazzo a “faggot.” However, Hill’s swift and heartfelt apology was, as celebrity apologies go, rather amazing. He seems to understand how homophobic language works: “I said the most hurtful word I could think of at that moment and, you know, I didn’t mean this in the sense of the word…I didn’t mean it in a homophobic way. And I think that doesn’t matter, you know? How you mean things doesn’t matter. Words have weight and meaning and the word I chose was grotesque and no one deserves to say and hear words like that.” It was hard to reconcile this apology with 21 Jump Street’s gay panic, and it made me wonder whether the criticism of the film had gotten to him. Maybe 22 Jump Street would be different.

And it is. In a way. 22 Jump Street is, lucky for the gays, not a two-hour mockery of gay sex. At one point, Jenko even rages at one of the bad guys for calling him what Hill called the paparazzo: “In 2014, you can’t say the word ‘faggot’!” However, 22 Jump Street is unfortunately a two-hour mockery of gay love. There are long bits focused on how Jenko and Schmidt’s fights seem like those of lovers; one is about how Jenko’s desire to investigate another man is like asking to be able to see other people and another is done in the office of a therapist who thinks they’re lovers. This mockery is not particularly cruel, and the film, like its predecessor, is a celebration of male friendship, even if that friendship seems a bit gay. It’s fumbling towards an enlightened view of masculinity, but in 2014, “even if” is unnecessary and retrograde.

All of that said, the 22 Jump Street is funny. In addition to a bunch of silly but laugh-worthy lines about sequels having bloated budgets and a dearth of ideas, both Hill and Tatum get to show off their ever-increasing movie starshine. Hill, who has now been nominated for two Oscars, bases much of his comedy on the humiliation of the needy nerd, and Schmidt is a nice encapsulation of a Hill character. (His parotic take on slam poetry is the best scene in the film.) When I saw 21 Jump Street, I thought casting Tatum as dumb jock Jenko perfect for his limited skills, but since then, I’ve come to realize he does dumb and pretty as Marilyn Monroe did – with great and underappreciated skill. Tatum is as good at being mentally clueless and physically flawless as Hill is at being schlubby and smart. They are perfect foils for each other. Maybe 23 Jump Street will jettison the homophobia and their comic pairing will become less cynical and daring. Or better, it will focus on how Schmidt and Jenko have been in love with each other the whole time. That would make all of this worthwhile.

22 Jump Street
Directed by Phil Lord, Christopher Miller
Written by Michael Bacall, Oren Uziel, and Rodney Rothman
Starring Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, and Ice Cube

Rated R


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
Rated R
Opens March 16
At your local multiplex

Yes, I am still reviewing movies. Here are the last four!

I’ve been very distracted over the last month, and while I’ve been turning in my reviews and they’ve been getting published, I’ve been spacing on linking to them. So, here are the four that I haven’t told y’all about, in order of most recent release.

50/50: I think one of the weirder genres of film is the disease comedy. Even if the film itself is an organic melding of comedy and tragedy, the idea itself is jarring. Paul Rudnick’s Jeffrey is a damn good movie (though a much better play), but it’s a sex comedy about AIDS. I mean, really. The Big C is a sitcom starring a host of wonderfully funny actors – Laura Linney, Oliver Platt, John Benjamin Hickey, Cynthia Nixon – but it’s about a woman with terminal cancer. Ugh. In the newest of the genre, 50/50, Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) responds to the stunned silence that follows the announcement of his diagnosis by asking, “Have you seen Terms of Endearment?” referencing the mother of all cancer comedies. How meta. And since it’s meant to get a laugh, it’s even more self-referential. [Read the whole thing.]

Moneyball: Michael Lewis’ 2003 book about how the Oakland Athletics’ general manager Billy Beane used baseball statistics in complex, innovative and surprisingly winning ways was a phenomenal bestseller. Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game has remained hugely popular for years, not just because Lewis managed to write a good sports drama but also because he wrote a great business book about how a macho, intuitive industry was changed by analytic nerds. While sports metaphors work well in business, and sports movies can be great drama, business books don’t make great films. However, the film based on Moneyball is a great movie, and this despite the business drama behind it, with the second director Steven Soderbergh getting fired and an Aaron Sorkin script getting rewritten. But Brad Pitt (playing Beane), Bennett Miller (who directed Capote), and Steve Zaillian (who adapted Schindler’s List), have hit a home run. (Sorry.) [Read the whole thing. Bonus: There’s a capsule review of Drive at the end.]

Contagion: I guess if you really want to scare the Bejesus out of audiences, releasing a movie about a mysterious, end-of-the-world viral pandemic on the weekend of the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks is one sure-fire way.

Unlike traditional horror movies that revolve around supernatural evil (The Exorcist) or angry psychopaths (Friday the 13th) or science fiction (28 Days Later), Contagion earns its horror by telling a story as close to possible as Traffic or The Hurt Locker did and then lets the underlying nervous terror wrought by the weekend amplify the fear. It’s a cynical, manipulative and exploitative move, and I’m not sure how commercially successful such a movie can be.

However, if you have Steven Soderbergh directing Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard and Laurence Fishburne, you can probably get funding for a movie about alfalfa farmers; you can get a lot of funding if you say your movie is Outbreak crossed with Traffic. It would help, of course, if the movie was as good as Traffic, Steven Soderbergh’s problematic masterpiece. Alas, it’s not. [Read the whole thing.]

Warrior: I must admit that going into the theater to see the mixed martial arts movie Warrior, I thought it was based on a true story. I don’t know why I thought this. It may have been its gritty similarity to The Fighter, last-year’s Oscar-winning movie about the real-life boxer Micky Ward and his brother Dicky. Or maybe it was that the last time Tom Hardy, the break-out star of last year’s Inception, was bulked up this huge, he was in Bronson, the mostly true story about an infamous British criminal.

Whatever the reason was, I think that believing that the brothers Brendan and Tommy Conlon were real people helped me to fall for the film in ways that were quite unexpected for me. Because I must also admit that the reason I was initially so excited to see Warrior is that I knew it would feature a lot of shirtless muscle gods wailing on each other. [Read the whole thing.]