Doing justice to the '80s original
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, Mar. 16, 2012
An unbridled, self-aware goofiness propels "21 Jump Street," an enterprise that sounded dreadful from, well, the jump.
To take a 1980s television series, reboot it into a 21st-century bromance and cast Apatow-comedy alum Jonah Hill and blandly handsome leading man Channing Tatum in the leads sounded to many like the final death knell for a movie industry that has been running on the fumes of remakes and baby-boomer nostalgia for years now.
In fact, the lack of originality or creative ingenuity that "21 Jump Street" symbolizes is addressed head-on early in the film, when a surly police captain played by Ice Cube tells two new recruits that the force has resurrected a defunct program from 30 years ago that sent undercover cops into high schools. "It's all about recycling [stuff] from the past and expecting everyone not to notice," he explains sourly.
The neophytes he's screaming at are Schmidt (Hill) and Jenko (Tatum), a bumbling nerd and good-looking dullard, respectively, who were arch-opposites in their high school but have become best buds since going through the police academy together. When they're assigned to a high school to bust a drug ring - a scant seven years after graduating - each seizes on the opportunities - in Schimdt's case, to heal four years of rejection and self-loathing, and in Jenko's, to relive his past glory.
It doesn't work out that way, and what ensues is less a cool action flick reminiscent of Johnny Depp's "21 Jump Street" than a role-reversal comedy full of good-natured jokes and sight gags, which include Schmidt's pathetic attempt to imitate Eminem in the movie's opening high school flashback and a climactic car chase during which Hill is wearing a Peter Pan costume and Tatum is dressed as a molecule, complete with pompoms stuck to his shirt.
It's those playful, even wholesome moments that stand out in this movie, despite the profanity and partying ethic that earned it an R rating. Despite the edginess and vulgarity, the production is suffused by an unmistakable sweetness, no doubt thanks to the film's co-directors, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, whose last outing was the family film "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs."
Endearing, too, are Hill and Tatum's supporting cast members, including Dave Franco as a sleepy-eyed cool kid (his resemblance to James Franco is downright eerie until you realize they're brothers) and a delightfully naturalistic Brie Larson as Molly, the sunny blonde on whom Schmidt develops an instant crush. (Rob Riggle, Ellie Kemper and Chris Parnell are also on hand with flawless comic stylings at the ready.)
Of course, Schmidt begins to call her - not realizing that phone calls are strictly 20th century. Much of the humor in "21 Jump Street" derives from how much has changed for teenagers since Schmidt and Jenko were in school. Suddenly, Jenko notes, liking comic books, veganism and tolerance are cool - and not reasons for punching someone out. "I blame 'Glee,' " he says at one point. "[Forget] you, 'Glee!' "
Like Marilyn Monroe and Judy Holliday before him, Tatum is sublime at playing dumb (as a dim pretty boy, he seems to be channeling Brad Pitt in "Burn After Reading"), just as Hill shrewdly deploys his body mass for maximum physical comedy (even slimmed down, with an Oscar nomination under that tightened belt, he carries himself with a fat man's comically elephantine grace). They work joyfully in harness, developing a chemistry reminiscent of Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg in last year's similarly anarchic buddy flick "The Other Guys." This is "The Younger Guys," with more surreally funny drug trips and amusing cameos (yes, that's TV-show alum Holly Robinson Peete as Officer Judy Hoffs).
"21 Jump Street" might be yet another product of Hollywood's recycling program, but it deserves to be noticed.
Contains crude and sexual content, pervasive profanity, drug material, teen drinking and some violence.