Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Movie Review: 21 Jump Street

21 Jump Street ***
Directed by: Chris Miller & Phil Lord.
Written by: Michael Bacall & Jonah Hill based on the series by Patrick Hasburgh & Stephen J. Canell.
Starring: Jonah Hill (Schmidt), Channing Tatum (Jenko), Brie Larson (Molly Tracey), Dave Franco (Eric Molson), Rob Riggle (Mr. Walters), DeRay Davis (Domingo), Ice Cube (Captain Dickson), Dax Flame (Zack), Chris Parnell (Mr. Gordon), Ellie Kemper (Ms. Griggs), Jake M. Johnson (Principal Dadier), Nick Offerman (Deputy Chief Hardy).

The idea behind 21 Jump Street – that two police officers could go undercover in high school and pass themselves off as students – is ridiculous. One of the main reasons why this update of the 1980s TV show works so well is because the filmmakers know the idea is ridiculous, and they have fun with it. No, Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill do not look like high school students anymore – and that’s precisely the point. If more filmmakers would acknowledge just how ridiculous their premises were, perhaps wed get more movies as funny, clever and just flat out entertaining as 21 Jump Street.

When they were high school seniors – 7 years ago – Jenko (Tatum) and Schmidt (Hill) were on opposite ends of the social specter. Jenko was a jock and one of the popular kids. Schmidt was a nerd that Jenko picked on. When they meet years later, at the police academy, they bond because they are still opposites – Jenko excels at all the physical stuff, but is still none too bright, and Hill is still really smart, but doesn’t excel at the physical stuff. But when they screw up their first bust, they get punished by being sent to 21 Jump Street – and revived undercover program from the 1980s – where they will be sent back to high school – shockingly, when they get there, each sees how the other half lives. Schmidt falls in with the popular kids – the drug dealers of a new synthetic drug that recently led to a student’s death – and Jenko is stuck with the science nerds, trying to figure out who is actually making the drugs.

But the plot of the movie is largely inconsequential. This is a movie that mines humor out of its ridiculous premise of having two guys well into their 20s hanging out in high school – and realizing how much things have changed. At this point, we expect Jonah Hill to be funny in his movies – he has numerous great comedic performances on his resume – Superbad, Get Him to the Greek and his creepily hilarious turn in Cyrus. Yet, Hill isn’t quite playing the brash, over compensating fat guy, but rather a really rather shy, sweet guy who always wanted to be popular, but could never crack the code. Which is why, when he becomes popular, he takes it a little too seriously. The surprise part of the tandem is Channing Tatum, an actor I have never really warmed to before. But here, he matches Hill joke for joke, and even brings a degree of sympathy to his character – he expected to be popular once again when he went back to high school, and the fact that he isn’t upsets him more than he wants to admit. Yet, he does find real friends with the science geeks. The supporting cast – James’ younger brother David Franco as the cool kid, drug dealer, Ice Cube as Captain who swears like a Mamet character and especially Brie Larson as the cute, popular girl who falls for Schmidt, are all wonderful.

21 Jump Street plays with its multiple genres throughout – high school comedy, buddy cop action film and comes up with an interesting mix. The fact that they know how silly the movie is becomes the key to why it works so well. 21 Jump Street may not be a great movie, but I had a great time watching it.

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