It’s hard to pinpoint when Dax Shepard’s “CHIPS” takes a sharp turn into indefensibly racist humor, but one place to start would be a passing reference to Michael Peña as “the little brown one.” It’s not the only cringe-worthy moment.
It may be unfair to pigeonhole Shepard as endorsing ugly stereotypes, even if he did write, produce, and direct a movie that derives 90 percent of its humor from gay jokes, race jokes, and punchlines about attractiveness that basically amount to a beta version of the pre-Facebook website “Hot or Not.” But they’re all there, in this overblown and completely baffling adaptation of a 1970’s TV series that literally nobody asked for.
Shepard plays Jon Baker, a former professional motorcycle racer who joins the California Highway Patrol in an effort to win back his estranged wife, Karen (played by Shepard’s actual wife, Kristen Bell). In his intake interview with a sadly out-of-place Maya Rudolph, Baker explains his suspect reasoning for the career change: “I heard in couples therapy that women often marry their fathers, and her father was a cop.” Rudolph’s Sargeant smiles as if that wasn’t a totally insane thing to say, and the two exchange pictures of their spouses. “Wow, you’re really lucky,” she says, handing Baker back his phone.
Baker is paired with new transfer Frank “Ponch” Poncherello (Peña), an undercover FBI agent sent to investigate a nefarious ring of corrupt cops who have been highjacking armored trucks on the highway for large sums of money. Shepard and Peña carry a serviceable buddy dynamic with Ponch as the uptight Federal agent focused on his case and Baker as the clueless rookie intent on ticketing every “old guy” out for a joyride. High-octane motorcycle chases serve up the adrenaline, with Ponch’s newbie skills often leaving him in the dust when Baker off-roads.
The plot is secondary, however, to the insidious worldview that Shepard attempts to pass off as crude humor. What starts as a locker room gag where Ponch looks on disgusted as Baker’s junk touches another man’s carries into full-blown gay paranoia as Ponch somehow face plants into Baker’s crotch. Shepard seems to think that having Baker accuse Ponch of being homophobic will magically excuse him from such accusations himself. This shred of self-awareness only makes it worse: Shepard knows exactly what he’s doing here, down to every last offensive detail.
He distributes no such self-awareness however, when it comes to race jokes. When the corrupt lieutenant Kurtz (Vincent D’Onofrio) fishes around Ponch’s cover story, he asks if he knows an Officer Jason Lynn. “Lin? Oh yeah, Asian Jason, sure,” he replies. When the mix up becomes apparent, Ponch orders a profile drawn up from his FBI team: “He’s gotta be super Asian.” The final beat in the whole terrible sequence comes when Kurtz looks up the file. The camera lands on a photo of an Asian man. Cue the laughs?
The women in “CHIPS” are over-sexed, untrustworthy, and constantly rated with that charming tool of contemporary misogyny: The scale of 1 to 10. Karen is a philanderer who only ever wanted Baker for his fame, Ponch’s night with a big-nosed redhead is major cause for concern, and poor Jane Kaczmarek is so horribly old and disgusting that Ponch would rather throw his phone into a fire than look at her body. Shepard’s inability to write a coherent script is made abundantly clear by the amount of time the movie spends looking at people’s phones, whether for gratuitous titty shots or to disparage a perfectly average looking guy’s face.
Though many will dismiss the offensive humor in “CHIPS” as standard big-budget comedy fare, there is something more insipid about the ceaseless hum of throwaway digs about who fucked whose wife and punchlines around two men sharing an embrace. Shepard seems hell bent on proving that no subject is off-limits when it comes to comedy, even when it comes at the expense of your co-star, and even when the humor doesn’t really work. And in the case of “CHIPS,” that’s pretty much all the time.
“CHIPS” opens in theaters on March 24.