The year 2011 will be remembered for a lot of things. It was the year of the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, and the death of Osama Bin Laden. It was also notable for a number of things in the world of cinema: it was the year the Harry Potter franchise came to an end, the year a silent film won the Academy Award for Best Picture, and Terrence Malick won the Palm D’or. These were all important trends that made a great many people quite happy, but it was also the year when a very unpleasant and rather distressing trend emerged: the death of the third wave of quality mainstream R-rated comedies, the wave started by Wedding Crashers and The 40-Year-Old Virgin and brought to prominence through movies like Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Tropic Thunder, and The Hangover. That’s not to say that there weren’t R-rated comedies, because there were, dozens of the in fact. The problem is they all sucked. Well, maybe I’m not the one to judge given that I skipped most of them, but the reputation of movies like The Hangover: Part 2, Bad Teacher, Your Highness, The Sitter, The Change-Up, and Hall Pass sort of spoke for themselves. As someone who quite enjoyed the string of good mainstream comedies I found this development rather depressing. I bring all this up because now, early in 2012, we’ve just received a glimmer of hope: a solid R-rated comedy from a major studio which picks up right where The Hangover left off.
That film is 21 Jump Street, which borrows the basic premise of its namesake television program and turns it into a very funny premise for a feature film. Like the show, the film is about young cops going undercover at a high school in order to bring down drug dealers operating among the very young. The catch is that the cops the film follows are not competent officers; they’re idiots who couldn’t get more glamorous assignments. These particular idiots are Morton Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Greg Jenko (Channing Tatum), two young officers who recently botched an arrest because they forgot the wording of the Miranda Rights and just told a defendant he had the right to “suck my dick.” The two are sent to this high school because of a deadly designer drug that had been circulating through the schools hallways. Their mission was to infiltrate the dealers to find the supplier, but this investigation begins to take a bit of a back seat when both officers begin to see this as a sort of opportunity to relive their high school years over again and get it right this time.
Do you have fond memories “21 Jump Street,” the early FOX show which aired from 1987 to 1991 and launched Johnny Depp’s career? Me neither. In fact I’ve never even seen a single episode of the show. Why haven’t I seen it? Well part of it is generational; the show is too old for me to have watched it when it first aired but too new to be a “classic” worth seeking out, but even the people who watched the show in the early eighties don’t seem to have a whole lot of respect for it. In short, “21 Jump Street” is no one’s idea of a hot property, which would seem to indicate that it would be a poor subject for a film adaptation, but that’s not really the case. In fact the weakness of the film’s source material is its strength; the fact that no one had any real stake in a straightforward adaptation of the show gave the filmmakers the freedom to turn the property into whatever they wanted, and that’s exactly what they did.
21 Jump Street is not exactly a parody, though it does occasionally make fun of genre clichés, it’s really more like a straightforward teen comedy like Superbad but with a twist. Much of the humor comes from a sort of culture clash between these cops and a new generation of high school students. Schmidt and Jenko had gone to high school together five years earlier but weren’t friends at the time. Schmidt had been a smart but unpopular kid who was known as “not so slim shady” because he sort of looked like an overweight Eminem. Jenko on the other hand had been a popular jock, albeit a stupid one forced to miss the prom because of poor grades. When they arrive at the high school they quickly find a new breed of popular kids; preppy types with gay friends and a passion for saving the environment. Jenko does not fit in with this crowd and is baffled that jocks like him are no longer the in-crowd in high school. Schmidt, on the other hand, finds that he actually fits in with this crowd and may well have a chance to become everything he wishes he was in high school the first time around.
It does perhaps stretch credibility that the mores of high school life had changed so dramatically in the five years since these two cops went to high school the first time around. The cops are made relatively young so that they could conceivably be mistaken for high school students, but they behave like they actually went to high school in the eighties or early nineties. Realistically they probably should have seen signs of this changing of the high school guard when they graduated in 2005 and the culture shock would have been less dramatic. That said, most of the stereotypes that the film is playing on were exaggerated in the first place, so it sort of makes sense that the film flips said stereotypes in a similarly exaggerated way. That said I do wish they had found a more interesting things for Jenko to do with side of the high school social spectrum. Rather than having him hang out with other marginalized jocks they have him hanging out with a bunch of science nerds who haven’t done much to climb out of their place on the social spectrum even in the “backwards” world of 2012 high schools.
When Superbad came out in 2007 a lot of people thought that it would launch Michael Cera into superstardom and that Jonah Hill would sort of fall to the wayside. Five years later Michael Cera finds himself increasingly typecast and hasn’t really had a box office success to his name since Juno. Jonah Hill on the other hand has been in a number of successful movies, found his way into some interesting indie projects like Cyrus, and even got an Oscar nomination to his name for his work in Moneyball. I wouldn’t say that he stretches his chops spectacularly in 21 Jump Street but the role seems tailor made for him and he puts his all into it. Channing Tatum also does good work here, largely because he was expertly casted into a role that seemed pretty perfect for him. I don’t know a lot about Tatum, he’s an actor that has done a good job of starring only in movies that look horrible and go unwatched by me (the only other Channing Tatum movie I’ve seen was Public Enemies, which he had a small role in that I don’t recall). I’m not convinced that Tatum is either a good thespian or a good comedian, but he gets the job done here.
There are other cool actors to be found in the movie like Ice Cube, who plays the less than pleasant captain of the 21 Jump Street program. I also quite enjoyed the work of Dave Franco (yes, James Franco’s brother) as the school’s dickish alpha-male ringleader. Dave Franco has played nearly identical roles in Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg and on the ill-fated final season of the TV show “Scrubs,” and he’s really carved out a niche for himself playing amusingly douchey over-privileged teenagers. The film also has a knack for casting solid comedic actors like Nick Offerman, Rob Riggle, Ellie Kemper, and Chris Parnell in small two-to-three scene roles that bring an extra added something to certain scenes.
At a certain point the film takes on an action movie element vaguely reminiscent of Pineapple Express which may be off-putting to some who just don’t want violence mixed in with their comedy. I also could have done without a mid-film car chase scene which was amusing but sort of felt like it was from a different, more madcap, movie. Otherwise though, I thought most of the action scenes worked within the film’s wild comedic spirit. Of course the police work in the film shouldn’t be taken seriously for a minute (there have been real examples of under-cover cops working in high schools, but they hopefully conduct themselves a lot more professionally than these fools) but I liked that there were some real stakes to the movie. Otherwise there’s not a whole lot to complain about. I’ve spent a lot of this thread talking about other recent Apatow-esque comedies and I’ve done that because this film fits right in with that crowd. It doesn’t reinvent the genre at all and it won’t change the mind of anyone who isn’t already a fan of these kinds of movies, but if you’ve been a fan of this genre at all you’ll also like this one a lot.
***1/2 out of Four