John Corcoran has been an entertainment reporter and is a seven time Emmy winning movie critic on TV in Hollywood, Washington, DC, and Boston .
About half way through 21 Jump Street I had a revelation. Gross out Comedy--like Killer Bacteria newly resistant to antibiotics--is mutating. In movies, believe it or not, that’s good news. Here’s why.
The flick, which is named after, but only loosely based on the old TV series that-rocketed-Johnny-Depp-to-fame, has a fairly standard plot. Two cops, opposites, become buddies to fill in each other’s shortcomings. Channing Tatum is the big dumb jock cop who helps Jonah Hill as, the brainy nerd, finds this physical thang, and the Hill character schools the cool guy on smarts. The youthful duo is assigned undercover to a high school to break up a drug ring. By the end of the movie the bad guys are captured, the good guys have cleared up leftover high school traumas, are in the throes of Bromance, and most importantly, the sequel is carefully set up.
The movie was not exactly in my Gotta-Go wheelhouse. The previews were promising but it wouldn’t’ be the first time someone was seduced by a trailer. Comedy trailers include the best gags from the movie; the intent is to get your butt in the seat. Once there, the A-material is familiar and if the B-material can’t carry the picture, you’re disappointed.
Grossness & Giggles
Years ago, filmmakers started enhancing the giggle factor in teen comedies with grossness. Sex and bodily function humor entered the picture, not slyly, not lurking in the shadows, but strutting right down main street, fly unzipped, DNA encrusted hair jell in place, and with the assurance that an R-rated movie can say and show just about anything.
What struck me about Jump Street wasn’t its grossness—most regular moviegoers have been benumbed by it by now. We expect scatology and mofo-ology to flow trippingly from tongues, we expect sex in its infinite permutations to be discussed and/or shown; we anticipate more onscreen humps than at a dessert Camel lot, we are unsurprised when drugs are ingested and barfed into toilets. As a bonus, Jump Street (spoiler alert) had a character get his manhood shot off and then attempt to retrieve it in a most unexpected way.
But like the best gross out comedies—not always an Oxymoron—the filmmakers decided to make this one funny and empathetic also. The casting was critical: there was the not-unexpected spot-on turn by Hill, and Channing plays dumb jock with élan. Key supporting roles went to the intentionally over-the-top Ice Cube, plus SNL and Daily Show vets Chris Parnell, Ellie Kemper and Rob Riggle. All were excellent, drawing from their years at training factories for funny people looking to move from small screen to large. The script by Hill and Michael Bacall worked.
Watch old comedy classics and you’ll see some more lineage. In the old classics, they knew that supporting roles in comedies were comedic gold mines. “His Girl Friday," starred a hilarious Cary Grant and Ros Russell and was awash with veteran character actors, none better than Billy Gilbert as an absent minded messenger. “Bringing up Baby” using the Marxian theory that Dowagers can be a riot. Grant and Katherine Hepburn were joined by May Robson whose timing and delivery took ordinary lines into unforeseen comic territory.
Cruise Cameo Relit Career
Even slumming Superstars can re-ignite their careers with comic cameos. Covered in padding and crowned by a bald cap, a profane and hilarious Tom Cruise got more laughs and appreciation in a few moments of screen time in “Tropic Thunder” than in most of his starring roles. Leslie Neilson was pigeonholed as a dramatic actor until Airplane! From that, a beloved comic star was born.
Of course if the script isn’t funny, you might as well not bother. In Jump Street, the script didn’t just rely on shock value or the comedic chops of the actors. They were given funny lines and situations to play off. I first laughed out loud when a diatribe about lack of creative imagination was supposedly aimed at police HQ. In reality it was a self-deprecating shot at recent movies themselves and Hollywood’s dependence on re-racks of tired tropes and unending sequels in lieu of cooking up something new and original.
So yes, 21 Jump Street is a funny piece of well-made relatively mindless entertainment, and has been handsomely rewarded with box-office success.
But more than that, it demonstrates how gross-out comedy must mutate or die. Movies have pretty much reached the limit of R-rated grossness. But the existence of teens that go to the movies in packs means the Suits will continue to mine that field. How then to stand out from the pack? How can gross-out grossness rope in jaded teens and even draw the demographically neglected viewer like me? With grossness maxed out, the best way to continue to bring people into theaters is by making the movies funnier, cleverer, better acted, better directed, and overall better movies.
Last year “Bridesmaids” did just that, and it was a massive blockbuster. Some will argue the fact it was a girls-will-be-bad-boys comedy deserved the credit. It was good acting and casting yes, but the writing made it work. Hollywood doesn’t give out Academy Award nominations for super-gross screenplays without redeeming value. And Bridesmaids had a superb script by Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo.
It was flat out hilarious at times, unafraid of sentiment, and a good yarn well told. Sure, your Aunt Priscilla isn’t’ ready for it, and probably never will be.
But for most of us, the ick factor of comedy is so high, the shock and awe no longer shocking or awesome, film makers are forced to go back to that old comedy standby --funny. Let’s hope it continues.