Sunday, March 25, 2012

21 Jump Street

21 JUMP STREET (Phil Lord and Chris Miller, 2012)

In 21 JUMP STREET new police officers Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) botch reading the Miranda rights to a suspect and are promptly reassigned to an undercover program.  They are to pose as high school students and find the the dealers and supplier of a synthetic drug already responsible for one kid’s death.

Although they became friends while training to be on the force, the mismatched cops were on opposite ends of the social spectrum when they went to high school the first time.  Schmidt was the geeky Eminem wannabe who excelled in academics and failed socially.  Jenko was the dumb jock lucky to be a graduating member of the class of 2005.

When Jenko confuses their assumed identities, they end up swapping positions on the social ladder.  Schmidt gets into the cool crowd and lets it go to his head while Jenko lands with the nerds and discovers the joy of using science to blow up things.

Other than the premise of supposedly young looking law enforcement officers going undercover as teenagers, 21 JUMP STREET isn’t terribly concerned with being faithful to the late ‘80s Fox television series it’s based on.  That’s not a problem, as the source material doesn’t require reverential treatment, and in fact the action-comedy is a lot more enjoyable since it doesn’t try to earn points by wallowing in nostalgia or replicate what preceded it.
Instead 21 JUMP STREET is a smartly stupid buddy comedy that plays with the ridiculousness of its set-up.  Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller and screenwriter Michael Bacall don’t ignore the elephant in the room--that Hill and Tatum couldn’t pass as teens--but gleefully point out the absurdities of the entire arrangement.  Lord and Miller co-directed the funny and inventive CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS, and they’ve brought that animated film’s zany sense of humor to live action in a way that seems perfectly ordinary within a cartoonish situation.

Still, the best jokes are often rooted in small, everyday observations that come at Schmidt and Jenko’s expense.  They find today’s high school landscape foreign to the one they knew.  Their debate over how to wear a backpack--one strap or two?--and bewilderment at the different fashions and social conventions bring plenty to laugh at in the rapidity of changes in youth culture and adults trying to keep up with it.

21 JUMP STREET wouldn’t deliver as many big laughs as it does if Hill and Tatum didn’t commit so fully to looking dumb.  Hill throws himself into singing a song as Peter Pan in a drama club audition and trying to run a track relay while high as a kite.  Tatum’s lunkhead act amuses when words betray him, such as when he pronounces the abbreviation for AP Chemistry, and in the excitement he gets from hanging with the kids he would have snickered at when they were his peers.  Tatum was pretty funny in a small role in THE DILEMMA.  In 21 JUMP STREET he’s found a good way of playing against his looks for big comedic payoffs.  He and Hill make a fun tandem.

Grade: B

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