March 21st, 2012

Review: 7/10 Can of Whoop Ass


21 Jump Street


            I have never seen a single episode of 21 Jump Street.  Other than knowing that Johnny Depp was a part of the show when he was a young actor, the 2012 cinematic adaptation brought about no feelings of nostalgia, because I simply have no historical attachment to the franchise.  That show is lumped in with many other series from the eighties, which found temporary popularity only to be washed away with the advent of the nineties.  I’m sure you can find 21 Jump Street reruns somewhere; I just couldn’t tell you where that might be.  Therefore, I wasn’t completely aware of what the premise of the film would be, other than that it was some sort of buddy/cop story.  While it is that, the plot is much more of an “infiltration” film, with the conceit being that the star or stars will gain admittance into a group or situation in which they don’t belong.  Movies of this type are almost always comedies, as the very idea of a grown adult doing something as implausible as going back to high school generates its own comedic momentum.  But while it is a huge leap of faith to get over the impossibility that the stars of 21 Jump Street could be accepted as high-schoolers, the film moves past that hiccup to deliver steady, satisfying laughs – and that’s all that matters.

            The film’s story revolves around Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum).  Mercifully, there is only a brief glossing over of their back stories, which only serve the purpose of explaining that the two come from opposite ends of the high school hierarchy, with Schmidt being the intelligent, friendless dork and Jenko being the popular, brainless jock.  As fate would have it, Schmidt and Jenko reunite at the police academy, teaming up to help each other through their respective weaknesses.  Once full-fledged cops, after a pretty hilarious attempted arrest in the park they patrol on bikes, our heroes are transferred to 21 Jump Street, to work in an undercover unit dedicated to infiltrating teenage crime circles.  The boys enroll back in high school only to find that the roles have reversed.  The cool teenagers are the hipsters, with their social awareness and civic responsibility, and Schmidt finds the acceptance he craved during his teenage years.  Jenko gets lumped in with the physics nerds and discovers a new appreciation for dork culture.  While this radical transformation is occurring, the investigation continues, which is directed towards finding a supplier for a new drug being sold at the high school.  Schmidt makes friends with the street level dealers, but can’t figure out the central supplier of the drugs.  As the story progresses, Schmidt and Jenko’s friendship deteriorates and they are fired from their jobs.  But fear not, everything can be solved at the prom (what better place to handle a massive drug transaction?), and things turn out just fine.

            The success of the comedy revolves around the fast-paced editing of the story and the performances of Hill and Tatum.  It is usually helpful for comedies to move quickly, as not every gag is of equal quality, and the faster you leave your lame jokes behind, the easier it is for the audience to forget them.  21 Jump Street goes for a laugh a minute, and though it may only get a laugh every other minute, aiming for a higher volume leaves a respectable base of truly funny lines and events.  One particular technique, which was maybe overused (I remember it being done at least four or five times), was having frantic chase scene music blaring, only to have it vacuumed out all at once, leaving us with a blank, noiseless payoff shot.  The effect is funny because it is a fitting parody of the expectations movies place on action sequences, where everything leads to an explosion and things are always so intense.  Visually, the film is easy to follow and vibrant with clever satires of clichéd action scenarios.

I was skeptical of the Hill/Tatum tandem, especially once I understood that they were meant to be masquerading as high school students (Hill is 29 and Tatum is 31).  But more importantly, their career arcs have been very different.  Tatum has dipped his hand in many different genres, from gritty drama (A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints), to teenage spectacle (Step Up, Step Up 2), to big-budget action (G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra), to recent sentimental crapfests (Dear John, The Vow).  Hill has stuck mostly to teenage comedy, but his recent foray into series drama (Moneyball) earned him an Oscar nomination, and in the last year he has lost an incredible amount of weight.  If not for his raspy, excitable voice, I can barely recognize the skinny new Jonah.  Since Tatum has never done straight-up, go-for-the-throat comedy and Hill has recently gone through some rather significant life changes, I wasn’t convinced the pairing would work – but it does.

            In fact, the entire movie relies on just how funny the two are.  Strangely, I never got the impression that Tatum and Hill were that funny together, but they each offered enough in their individual performances to create the illusion that their comedy was feeding off one another.  Tatum’s clueless sincerity and Hill’s insecure desperation create a good balance that doesn’t divert our attention or cause us to plant our loyalties in either camp.  But the success of their onscreen relationship revealed just how terrible everyone else is in the film, save for Mr. Walters, played by Rob Riggle, who is always funny in small doses.  The high school is populated by unfunny, forgettable characters.  In particular, Dave Franco (younger brother of James), given plenty of screen time, is maddeningly impossible to figure out.  At one moment, he’s cold and ruthless, other times excited and affable, other times scared and whiney – one of the most inconsistent acting performances I’ve seen in a long time.  Not to mention, his character makes no sense: he’s rich (impossibly plush house) and is headed to Berkeley, why exactly is he selling drugs?  The usually hilarious Chris Parnell is wasted as a drama teacher and I’m unsure how Ellie Kemper still gets roles in comedies.  Isn’t there anyone else who is halfway good looking who can play a ditz?  Is it the red hair?  I don’t get it.  She’s never even been funny on The Office, which is presumably why she gets roles like this in the first place (She was also the only unfunny person in Bridesmaids).  None of the other students, not Schmidt’s crush Molly or Jenko’s nerd pals, stand out.  And don’t get me started on that pathetic troupe of “1%ers”, which were such a cheap knock off of biker gangs that it makes Sons of Anarchy look like high art.

            And the story as a whole isn’t very cohesive or all that interesting.  When the plot’s twist is revealed, it is shortly followed by a mega-cameo, which wouldn’t be necessary if the plot was any good.  But the action sequences (Limo chases!) are as fresh as the dialogue and there is something unique about Hill and Tatum on screen together.  Plus, the film nearly concludes on possibly one of the best all-time gross-out gags.  The movie is good, but not great; you’ll laugh, but you won’t die of laughter; and you may never have seen the original 21 Jump Street television show, but you won’t really care.