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One joke that explains CHIPS and the wishy-washy state of modern movie comedy

The adaptation of the TV series wants to be “woke” but also hilariously offensive. It’s neither.

The CHIPS are down.
Warner Brothers
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Lurching out of the past, turning up on movie screens like it’s 1994 and every old TV show should be a movie, here comes CHIPS, a complete anomaly in 2017.

Based on the 1977 to 1983 TV series of the same name (okay, the i and the s in the title were lowercase in that one), CHIPS is a bad movie, but bad in a way where you can see every choice made along the way to making it bad.

It feels caught between too many masters — tugged in the direction of grossout comedy here, ’80s action-comedy there, with occasional nods toward being a serious movie about the opioid epidemic seemingly added entirely in post. (Seriously, one character talks about his son’s drug addiction, but almost entirely when his face isn’t on-screen, so said dialogue would be easier to add during additional dialogue recording sessions.) Moments with nudity or crude language are weirdly sequestered from the rest of the movie, as if it was originally shot for a PG-13 rating, then frantically reconfigured into an R-rated film later on.

In short, it’s never enough of any one thing to gain momentum, and its indifferent direction (by star and screenwriter Dax Shepard) means that when the final confrontation happens, it’s all but impossible to tell who one character is fighting — much less when that adversary showed up to join the fight. (I cannot say I know what happens in this sequence with 100 percent certainty.)

The movie lurches awkwardly from one thing to the next, as if it were originally double its 100-minute running time. It is, in short, a mess — but an interesting one! There’s a fascinating issue at the core of most of CHIPS’s problems that speaks to what it means to create comedy in 2017. So let’s look at one joke that explains the film’s issues.

One joke that explains what’s wrong with CHIPS

Early in CHIPS, Francis “Ponch” Poncherello (Michael Peña, good, but sorely testing my “Michael Peña is always good” hypothesis) first meets his new partner, Jon Baker (Shepard) in the California Highway Patrol locker room. Yes, those are the names from the TV show, but most of the story setup is new.

Ponch is an undercover FBI agent, looking to uncover dirty cops within the CHP. Jon is a former motocross rider who bombed out of the sport and is hoping to reinvent himself as a cop — but he’s none too good at anything but riding a motorcycle, which means he needs to ride the straight and narrow. Ponch’s bosses know that rookie Jon isn’t corrupt — but Jon’s incompetence also stands in the way of Ponch completing his investigation in time.

Anyway, during their meeting, Jon’s lower half is covered only by a tight-fitting pair of underpants, so Ponch flinches when Jon goes in for a hug. This is your basic, bro-y kind of joke — two dudes are so manly that they don’t want to hug.

Jon (Dax Shepard, left) and Ponch (Michael Peña) become partners and, eventually, friends.
Warner Brothers

But Shepard lives in the year 2017, is aware of progressive politics, and wants to let the audience know that he knows the underlying meat of this joke is “guys being intimate with each other is gross,” which is homophobic. So he has Jon call Ponch out on his homophobia, with the two arguing over whether it’s wrong that Ponch would rather hug a bikini-clad female model than an underwear-clad male stranger. (I should point out here that Ponch has a sex addiction, a character trait the movie half-heartedly brings up now and then when it needs to make the plot go.)

The conclusion of the scene involves another character — also clad in tight underwear — wandering in. He delivers a piece of exposition so thuddingly that you’ll immediately say, “Oh, that will be important to unraveling the mystery” (it is!), and then he and Jon hug, and Shepard cuts to the two’s crotches bumping together in the foreground while Ponch gazes in horror in the background.

The joke has gone from “two dudes hugging is gross” to “thinking two dudes hugging is gross a gross attitude in and of itself” to “two dudes hugging is gross.” And because Shepard has pointed out the underlying homophobia, the joke only becomes more homophobic, where you might not have noticed or cared in the original iteration.

The thing about this setup — a guy who’s a little too into his own “wokeness” and a guy whose attitudes are straight out of a 1970s TV show — is that it’s not a bad idea for a comedy. Buddy comedies are often about opposing worldviews coming into conflict, until both sides come to realize there’s some value in what the other side preaches. (Here, that might look like “Jon learns to embrace his inner dudebro a little bit, while Ponch learns some of his attitudes are out of date.” Not exactly the world’s most original story, but workable.)

Instead, Shepard sets up this idea, plays around with it for about a third of the film, then mostly abandons it in favor of a flat, lifeless mystery plot that’s too easy to figure out and crammed full of pointless loose ends, needless flashbacks, and muddy action sequences. None of the grossout gags are gross enough to prompt real laughter — a major setup is “Jon thinks cat shit smells bad,” which, sure, but I need more! — and the character conflict the movie sets up early on is shunted aside in favor of Jon and Ponch being super best pals.

The idea of the two being super best pals is somewhat close to the original TV series, but the original TV series also only had to fill a little under 50 minutes of time every week. Double that, and you end up with a dull exhale of a movie, one that wants to provoke the audience by sticking its fingers in social taboos while simultaneously being too timid to do just that.

Which brings everything back to the state of the Hollywood comedy. Comedy itself is based on archetypes, which usually border on stereotypes. Some of these are harmful — especially ones based on innate, genetic things nobody can change about themselves — and some of them aren’t (a snob versus a slob will be a comedy storyline until the end of time, probably).

But we’re in a weird time where comedy writers and directors are simultaneously aware of that harmfulness and don’t want to add to it, while also remembering how many of their favorite comedies of the past played with those very archetypes to hilarious effect. Some are deft enough to be able to get away with playing around in that grey area (Judd Apatow and Paul Feig come to mind), but most end up stranded in a weird, in between place. They want to mock modern sensitivities — but also honor them — and they end up neither here nor there.

“Neither here nor there” is also a great description of CHIPS, which always seems to be on its way somewhere else. It never gets there.

CHIPS is in theaters everywhere. So try to stay away from them if possible.

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