Revisiting this movie, I’m struck by a couple of things. First off, I think it’s mostly very funny, though like most movies with a weird gimmick the setup until they get to the point (them in high school in this instance) is pretty clunky. It’s also a pretty sweet movie in its own dumb way, following most bro-y high school movies in having parts where it really does try to say something about friendship and growing up and letting go of certain things. So yes, funny and touching. Let’s just get that out of the way.
The problem is that around all that is the crud of this toxic jovial masculinity that is pervasive in all these movies, be they penned by Apatow or Rogen or Hill or any of the people who make these kinds of movies anymore. They try to tackle these complicated emotions in the context of a funny movie, but then they fall again and again into two major lazy traps: homophobia and misogyny. None of it feels particularly conscious, but it’s there in many scenes, and the movies seem totally unaware of how jarring their ‘meanings’ are when compared to how people are treated along the margins of the film
First, the homophobia. I get it: dicks are funny. I have one, I know, they’re goofy god damn appendages and the minute a boy hits puberty he knows that his junk is ridiculous. I don’t have any problem with dick jokes in general, because whatever, right? The problem is that those jokes are often in the context of two bros talking about or inflicting their dicks on the other, through ‘playful’ humping or the casual male teen insults of ‘suck my dick’ or whatever, that all rankle with a latent sense of gay panic. Dicks are ubiquitous, but the worst thing anyone could do would be to take their presence seriously sexually, because that’s gay and being gay is scary and weird.
Which extrapolates out to the treatment of women. If dicks, and the men that are attached to them, are the norm, then women are automatically the strange Other. In this instance the movie tries to have a not-quite-romance between Jonah Hill and Brie Larson where the moral is they don’t hook up because adults don’t sleep with high school girls? But that’s hardly a thing to cheer for when the lead makes that conclusion. And when he gives her this speech, after lying to her and using her beyond what was necessary for his job, about how she shouldn’t ever go for assholes like him, how comforting is it that she smiles and they have a moment? Because of course so long as you say sorry predatory behavior and emotional manipulation are just lovably unfortunate character quirks, right?
The problem is this is seemingly every movie of this type anymore. It’s only the rare film that’s made by women, be it Bridesmaids or The Heat or whatever else, that seems to side step this kind of casual disregard for anything that isn’t in the true bro status quo. For a movie about how two people have to learn to move past the shit they held onto in high school, 21 Jump Street is lock step with the teenage boy mindset of ‘bros before hos’ and ‘no homo’ all the way into its shitty, sweaty grave. Which is a shame, because all of it is totally superfluous to the actual story, which has plenty of jokes that aren’t at anyone’s expense.