Last month Peter
Knegt peeled back the layers on ‘Neighbors’ to find its gooey homoerotic
subtext and imagery. Though it does not contain Zac Efron man-candy or Dave
Franco’s bare ass, ’22 Jump Street’ may have just knocked ‘Neighbors’ off its
shiny gay pedestal with the most unapologetic pair of bromances I’ve ever
witnessed on screen.
The film, self-aware to a fault, plays constantly on the idea that ‘22 Jump Street’ is a direct repeat of ‘21 Jump Street,’ only this time we follow Jenko (Channing Tatum) and Schmidt (Jonah Hill) to college. It is a funny meta-premises for an even funnier sequel to the 2012 original, with a never-better turn from Ice Cube as Captain Dickson and some hilarious supporting turns, particularly fast-talking newcomer Jillian Bell. But, amid the drug ring mystery hijinks and spring break debauchery, only Jenko and Schmidt’s relationship rings true as a narrative thread worth keeping track of. Their’s is a bond of undercover partnership, friendship, and ultimately (and I don’t think I’m overstepping), love.
When they arrive at Metropolitan City State University (womp womp), Jenko immediately finds community with the fraternity football players, leaving Schmidt behind to attend to his newfound friend, Zook (the hunky Wyatt Russell). Zook and Jenko are inseparable from the outset, leading them to success on the football field. “It’s like I know where you’re gonna be before I even throw the ball,” says Zook, in awe of his new friend’s dopey sameness and, it seems, his good looks. In one scene they sit atop the goal posts and repeat over and over the amazingness of their deep bond. I expected them to kiss at any second, if not in any realistic sense then at the very least because their energy should have drawn them together physically. They are, for lack of a better word, magnetic.
They don’t kiss. In fact, nothing so outwardly and realistically homoerotic as the penis casting scene or frat party milieu from ‘Neighbors’ comes into play in ’22 Jump Street.’ Rather, the film takes a more emotional approach to its characters’ bonds. Schmidt predictably becomes jealous of Zook and Jenko’s bond, attaching himself to a pretty girl named Maya (Amber Stevens, who apparently has not graduated since her days on ‘Greek’). When Jenko and Schmidt are together, though, through the thick and thin of it, you get the sense that they are more fulfilled than with anyone else. This makes the dissolution of their friendship in the middle of the film all the more ripe for gay riffs.
In interactions with several other characters, and with each other, both Tatum and Hill play their parts without irony, and with all the tension of a romantic couple being pulled in several directions. When they unwittingly end up in the school counselor’s office, Schmidt offers Jenko his hand, desiring unabashedly (as his heterosexual character) to have physical contact with a friend. The counselor, of course, reads the entire scenario as a couples therapy session, and the witty dialogue keeps us right there with them. Jenko stating his desire to spend time with Zook turns into a riff on “opening up our relationship,” a turn which appears to be a natural deviation in the course of their relationship.
When the two are reunited after a period apart and become energized about completing their mission, Jenko sets boundaries: “This is a one time thing. Are you alright with that?” Schmidt does not seem alright, but wanting Jenko the way he does, he gives a sad nod. It is all too easy, too ripe with hilarious subtext, and yet it plays as human, emotionally-directed comedy.
The film only devolves into physical comedy at two points, moments which revealed the extent of graphic homoeroticism the audience I watched with was prepared to handle. In the less well-received act, Jenko had to stick his hand into Schmidt’s pants to retrieve a grenade; when he bites off the clip to activate it, a slew of disgusted “ooh’s” erupted from the theater. The other scene, in which Jenko and Schmidt feign oral sex in order to get out of a dangerous situation (trust me, it makes more sense on screen) was perhaps less scary for people because it was so very fake. It also presented, by my count, the best “gay power” moment of any contemporary, heterosexual-driven comedy.
The man who sees Jenko and Schmidt “in the act” calls them “faggots.” Jenko, football helmet on his head, gets up and yells back: “What did you call us? You can’t call us that!” His outrage is not a denial of the sexual orientation which the man has assigned to him and Schmidt, but rather at the language used. “Gay, sure. Homosexuals, maybe. And if you’re good friends with the person and they’re cool, queer.” His tirade is a lesson in politically correct language, and paired with an earlier scene in which he apologizes for any homophobic slurs he may have used in high school, Jenko effectively delivers a very funny scene about being homosexual without taking shots at homosexuality. Even more, in keeping with the rest of the homosexually-oriented scenes in the film, neither he nor Schmidt ever deny their status as gay men.
Ultimately, Jenko and Schmidt, and, one can imagine, Tatum and Hill, are so fulfilled by each other that they cannot help but come together. They are a dynamic duo, a fantastic pair of dunces who, for whatever reason, have been given the chance to solve serious drug cartel cases. When it comes to this bromance, I’ve got no reason to complain. And that’s saying something.
*It should be noted that while the film does wonders for the homosexual subtext of bromantic relationships on screen, one scene, involving characters from the previous film (one of whom had his penis shot off) comes off as highly transphobic and continues a tradition of prison rape as an expected act. Mr. Walters (Rob Riggle), the man without a penis, quips that the doctors gave him a vagina instead; we then see that he has been living in a cell with Eric (Dave Franco), the drug dealer from the previous film. Walters jokes that Eric takes advantage of him, saying “I’m his bitch” with a level of malicious glee which, while perhaps reversing a hierarchical narrative (since Eric could not be less interested), cannot help but feel uncomfortable. It is an unfortunate moment in a movie that does so much good work in other arenas.