We have lots of terminology for what happens when two male stars appear to have the platonic hots for each other. The genre is called bromance. The feelings are bromantic. The orientation is bromosexuality.
What Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum have in “21 Jump Street’’ scrambles, transcends, and explodes all of that.
They play nincompoop cops undercover as brothers named Doug and Brad. They’re trying to infiltrate and bust up a high school drug ring. To prove they’re not narcs, the dealer, Eric (Dave Franco), forces them to take the drug, an individually wrapped wafer that looks like a Ritz cracker. It’s called HFS, stands for a hilariously unprintable exclamation, and produces a kind of buffet-style, all-you-can-tweak high.
They swallow, race to a bathroom stall, and kneel over the same toilet, shoving their hands down their throats in an attempt to purge the drug. But they can’t. Then one suggests they each try to make the other throw up, which results in the ecstatic experience of watching Hill and Tatum frantically jam one hand down the other’s throat. The comedy of the predicament is a surprise. For one thing, the image is chaotic but pleasingly symmetrical, with each man on either side of the stall, conjoined by extended arms. For another, they’ve found a way to use the body to make us laugh while both alluding to the hassle of eating disorders and sending up the physical complications of certain types of unconventional sex.
So much is going on in that moment, and yet the sight of these two going at each other is beyond ready language. What they’re doing to their bodies just does something to yours. That’s good comedy, and, for an exhausting stretch, good comedy is all “21 Jump Street’’ does.
That scene sets the mood for the sequence that follows, in which they proceed to freak out. The movie has already shown, in a very funny Internet home video, all that the drug can do. When Doug and Brad reach a new level of their trip, the screen announces the stage in eruptive Day-Glo the way it might when you’ve reached a new level of a video game. They make their way from class to class, increasingly out of their minds. Doug (Hill) blasts into an audition for the school play that, minutes before, he was too shy to attempt. He magnificently ruins a track meet, in part by simulating lewdness with a baton. Meanwhile, Brad (Tatum), a strapping idiot, stands at the front of his chemistry class and fills the whiteboard with museum-quality gibberish. He arrives in band practice and proceeds to hurl himself through the ring of a gong. Their high is our high.
Michael Bacall wrote “21 Jump Street,’’ which the directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller have made with both energy and precision. Bacall devised the movie with Hill, and it’s not a remake of the old Fox television show as much as a continuation - at least three of its stars have cameos as older versions of their characters. The movie’s high school assignment begins by way of apology. Brad and Doug’s boss (Nick Offerman) says this narc program’s been resurrected because the department is out of ideas. You titter, but you worry. It’s been 15 minutes, and the movie already doesn’t think much of itself. But that’s throat-clearing for the many things Bacall would like to achieve.
One is a conscious joke about high school evolution which doubles as a comment on social progress. Doug and Brad’s real names are Morton Schmidt and Greg Jenko. Seven years ago, they went to the same high school. Schmidt was a geek with a raver’s flared jeans and Eminem’s haircut. Jenko was his bully. In the police academy, they fall in a kind of love with each other, but as Doug and Brad, living as roommates in the Schmidt family home, Doug worries that Brad will revert to his old self. Actually, Schmidt was supposed to be the nerdy Brad and Jenko the athletic matinee idol. But they confused their undercover ruses, so on top of the other ideas, “21 Jump Street’’ is also a variation on the body-swap comedy.
From the minute Doug and Brad park their car, it’s clear the high school landscape has been redrawn. Brad causes a scandal when, reassuming his passé dumb-jock role, he punches out a kid (Justin Hires) for listening to “gay music.’’ The kid is black and actually is gay, which means Brad committed a double hate crime. That character is also part of the cool, popular, smart clique, which includes Eric, who’s the drug dealer but also an environmentalist, and Molly (Brie Larson), a theater nerd who’s fooling around with Eric but has a crush on Doug. That redistricting extends to the narcs. Doug can now experience the chic of being a geek while Brad spends time bonding with the nerds.
These are sophisticated observations that play as cheap gags. Most of the movie tries for that. Not everything in it works. Ice Cube plays the angry-black-captain role, and atones for it by demanding that all the characters embrace their stereotypes. But he has the only one, and he’s so far past his days as an anti-LAPD anarchist that the casting no longer has any irony. It’s the opposite of what’s smartest about this movie, which wants to erase the boundaries of the stereotype. That was the most interesting aspect of the TV show, which made Holly Robinson Peete, Dustin Nguyen, Peter DeLuise, and Johnny Depp equal partners in rescuing teens from various moral and social scourges. A lot of remakes would try to find the camp in that achievement, to make a “Brady Bunch’’ movie. This one extends that progress.
Not much gets between Hill and Tatum - not the action-movie highway-chase parody, nor the support offered by Ellie Kemper, Chris Parnell, Rob Riggle, and the peerless Caroline Aaron as Schmidt’s mother. The movies have been trying to make Tatum into some kind of leading man, but if he’s to be a bigger star, his best route there runs crooked. He’s neither a convincing romantic hero (not a conventional one, anyway) nor a persuasive action figure. There’s a lunatic twinkle in him that in “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints’’ and “The Dilemma’’ had been demanding to be let loose. He knows about 300 ways to play dumb, and this movie lets him try them all.
Hill is looking for alternate approaches to comedy. He appears to have outgrown shouting profanities. Now he’s backing into adulthood by feeling and emoting. He’s struggling to get control of his lunacy.
Neither man has had a better foil. They are literally and figuratively trying to bring something out of each other, and they do. Martin Lawrence and Will Smith had this kind of chemistry in the “Bad Boys’’ movies, where Smith’s cool seemed to push Lawrence to some new unstable height. With them, there never seemed to be a true straight man, comedically and, to some extent, sexually. They were in an undisguised love.
The movies Hill has made with Michael Cera and Seth Rogen helped popularize the idea of the so-called bromance. But, in those relationships, there was a tension about not wanting to seem too gay. “21 Jump Street’’ says goodbye to all of that. At some point, Doug asks Brad to the prom, and there’s no panic in the invitation or awkwardness in the acceptance, only affection and sincerity.
The movie may not be consciously exploiting the evolution of male buddydom in Hollywood, the way it’s gone from implicitly gay to uncomfortably and defensively straight, from Butch and Sundance to Rogen and Rudd. It’s possible that when Tatum leaps onto a bed and pretends to thrust himself into Hill, it’s just an actor having fun with his image. But it’s also more than that. It’s a star releasing decades of man-to-man movie tension by mocking the discomfort in an utterly natural way.
Just as the high school movie factions have evolved, “21 Jump Street’’ argues that so, too, must the cop movie. Here, it has.Wesley Morris can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @wesley_morris.