The action bromance has been made before, as Pineapple Express. The return to high school of a young-looking adult who has unfinished business from the primal scene of American identity-formation? That was Never Been Kissed. (Fast Times at Ridgemont High precedes it–Cameron Crowe went undercover for Rolling Stone to write it–but he left himself out of the resulting screenplay.)
21 Jump Street, then, is the return-to-high-school action bromance, and it would be hard to imagine a better one. In high school, jock Channing Tatum was nerd Jonah Hill’s nemesis; five years later, as police cadets, they are each other’s salvation, each helping the other through the physical and scholastic exams of the Metropolitan City Police Department.
Students of the Apatovian will recognize that such a friendship bears the hallmarks of awkwardness–”awkward in a good, promising way.” (Judd Apatow’s name is not attached to 21 Jump Street, but co-writer and executive producer Jonah Hill carries his torch proudly.) Hill and Tatum bond easily, freed from the high school social norms that structured their adolescent misery. But their relationship needs a test, and their crucible is returning to high school.
The 21 Jump Street setup of young-looking police officers infiltrating high schools to ferret out crime is all the movie takes from its namesake show. As a police captain, Nick Offerman has a fun bit of business with the use of the name, bumping Hill and Tatum down to “a cancelled undercover police program from the ’80s,” reinvented for a new generation because “they’re completely out of ideas.” And we’re off to the races, never looking back except for a witty cameo. A self-consciously angry black commanding officer, played by Ice Cube, sends them in to find a high school drug dealer providing a deadly new substance.
At the high school they infiltrate, mores have shifted such that nerdy Hill fits in with the popular clique, and throwback jock Tatum finds himself exiled to the truly geeky precincts. (It’s not perfectly clear why the truly geeky don’t fit in with the popular clique, but it works.) Since both of them (all of us) have unfinished business with high school, the emotional consequences of this reversal will interfere with their police work. The prepubescent utopia of their unlikely friendship is subject to the reverse stress test as Hill tries to navigate his newfound popularity with his loyalty to his out-group friend, not to mention their mission.
The movie is steadily hilarious and emotionally labile, with satisfying plants and payoffs throughout. The female characters are no worse-developed than in anything else off the Apatow family tree (except of course for Bridesmaids), although Brie Larson is winning (and winningly curvy) as the high school student that Jonah Hill could get but can’t have. As an eco-sensitive popular kid, James Franco’s little brother is the Franco you want to slap more. The movie deftly avoids one prison rape joke (substituting Ice Cube’s threat to visit the officers in prison and do something terrible but not at all rapey to them with a snorkel) but falls into another, almost half-heartedly.
Jonah Hill has been full of surprises for a while now (the Oscar nomination was another one), and 21 Jump Street makes it clear that he’s not actually as much of a substitute for Seth Rogen as he seemed at first. Starting in Freaks & Geeks, Rogen was a dry commentator, almost always playing the palace fool (with his late-season romance with sousaphone player Amy a notable exception). Hill is a much emotionally riskier comic leading man. Oscar was a surprise, but it wasn’t crazy.
What did you see? And what did it bring up for you?
I am a member of a species (or sub-species, who knows about such things?) that ruthlessly eliminated all other (sub-)species similar to it. Let’s look at that from our prehistoric predecessors point of view: if it walks and looks like a human being but is, in some arbitrary way, different, then: “Die, motherf***er, die!”. Maybe after some evolution this subroutine was changed to: “Hello stranger, can you show me your cave?” after which they switched to “Now you can all die together, little pricks, die!”. I guess there will have been countless of small, little advances over the aeons, but for us as a species not to have any real next of kin the common denominator has to have been genocide and ethnic cleansing.
That is a somewhat depressing thought. I don’t know whether it is true. The real hatred in all of this is that something that I know to be true is even more depressing.
Let’s look at it from the point of view of some of the offspring of our predecessors. We can focus on those who believe that there was a point alpha in which our predecessors were created as lords of this world without any need for ruthlessness or any of that shit. Their view is that if you walk and look like a human being but are, in some god given way, different then: “You can just rot before you go to hell.” They don’t even bother to kill you in order to eliminate you as they know they can rely on the dynamic mechanisms of the market to single out the weak. After that they solve the job by ignoring you. After all they cannot halt our evolution to the point omega, now can they? And anyway, they can claim plausible deniability. It is not like they harmed us. If push comes to shove, we were nothing more than a bunch of infidels to start with. Probably just another test thrown at them at the point of creation to make the path more difficult and the attainment of the goal so much more worthwhile.
The depressing part of that thought is that it is a fact. Not only do these people exist but they dominate public discourse. I blame it on the concept of the silent majority.
I hate silent majorities. I have nothing against silence but I hate that the absence of speaking up is counted toward having an opinion either way.
I hate exclusion and I hate these awkward moments where you feel like the other one thinks that, yeah, you walk and you look like a human being but you are also, in some unspeakable way, different. There you are then. Silence. Off they are and you are alone. What would they be thinking? Or saying about you?
I hate that I missed my Sunday Stories.
I just completed the first full draft of my book tentatively entitled Awkwardness. Looking over the other titles in the book series in which it will hopefully be appearing, I am starting to wonder if I need a subtitle. I discuss philosophy in connection with pop-cultural manifestations of awkwardness, and so it’s tempting to line up my main names on each front with some kind of connector: “What X has to tell us about Y,” or something like that. Yet I don’t want to imply that the dialogue is one-way. So right now, I’m thinking that maybe this would be a possibility: “What Ricky Gervais, Judd Apatow, Hegel, and Heidegger Can Tell Us About Larry David and St. Paul.”