Comedy is a highly subjective genre, almost scientifically so. Like horror, there are a great many variables that factor into whether or not your specific pressure points are met. The term “crowd pleaser” is an overused one, as what sends one audience into hysterics can just as soon flatline yours. But fuck that. And fuck you, Science. Because it’s the rare and special comedy that can reach out beyond our divisions of humor and scratch all manners of burning itch. It’s my belief that 21 Jump Street scratches these itches, and our proverbial crotches are all better because of it.
What works about 21 Jump Street, a spiritual continuation of the 1980s FOX series*, are the same things that work for a lot of favorites. It’s a touching buddy actioner, not unlike a Midnight Run or Lethal Weapon, but it’s also a gut-busting comedy that has roots in both former and contemporary successes. It has the modern tropes associated with the Apatow lot but there’s also something more going on here. The Michael Bacall screenplay (also sharing a story credit with Hill) is tight enough to never linger in the same place or on the same joke for very long. The laughter comes at a manic pace – distracting from a thin plot for sure, but the film works specifically because of the freedom the light narrative provides the performers. So it’s hardly a bad thing.
Built around one performance that’s really good and another that’s surprisingly great, Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum are now comedy’s most unlikely duo. Hill employs his familiar comedic chops to typically reliable effect, but 21 Jump Street will be remembered as the precise moment Channing Tatum revealed himself as a bonified star – no longer pigeonholed beneath the artistic glass ceiling heartthrobs often reside (see Pettyfer, Alex). There’s this wounded vunerablity to his Greg Jenko, a character not completely oblivious to his own lack of intelligence. He’s skated by on looks and physicality, assisted by Jonah Hill’s nerdier, more concentrated Morton Schmidt. Tatum’s deadpan delivery when threatening to beat a guy’s dick off (due to the intensity of said beating, you see) says everything you need to know about his character. He’s not trying to be an idiot, he’s trying to be a badass. Really fucking hard. And after both this and Haywire it’s safe to confirm that Tatum has what it takes to be a performer-to-watch for the foreseeable future.
When we first meet the guys, they’re both having the worst day their high school lives. Schmidt just got turned down to prom while Jenko discovers his shit grades will keep him from attending. Both guys play these failings as life and death, which is exactly how it feels at that age. It’s not until seven years later when they meet again in the police academy and a friendship forms out of the obvious necessities. The reason I bring it up is that a lesser film wouldn’t give you a reason why these two guys are together. But here it’s organic, and it’s what commands the rest of the picture. There’s a genuineness and sensitivity that gives depth and camaraderie to the humor of this pairing.
Directed by the Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs guys, Phil Lord and Chris Miller have once again taken a fringe property and contorted it into an entertaining beast all their own. I’ve never seen an episode of the original TV series about pretty cops posing as high school students to bust perps, but the references to its 80s pedigree are present and they’re obvious enough so as to not be lost on the audience. It’s appreciated, but it wouldn’t have mattered. By the time Nick Offerman’s police chief hilariously informs Hill and Tatum they’ll be taking part in a tired sting operation that’s been recycled from the 80s you’re well aware the filmmakers share your lack of enthusiasm for the sort of underbaked rehash 21 Jump Street could have been. It’s a move that subverts your preconceived notions and gets the truth out there right away. It’s also perversely ingratiating and speaks to the filmmakers’ approach.
Much of the humor in the film is derived by how foreign a concept high school really is. When the guys go undercover and pose as students they’re shellshocked to find how much has changed. I too went to school at a time where one-strapping your backpack was cool. Now kids are two-strapping again, and it’s a confounding point of contention for our stars. The film serves as a reminder to how important such things were at that age, and how hilariously trivial they are as adults. Popularity is once again the name of the game and, unlike the truly rancid Project X, there’s an honesty here that speaks to both its rewards and its shortcomings.
I’m skirting around a lot about 21 Jump Street, as it’s a better film to talk about after we’ve all seen it. There are jokes and surprises that are too rich to ruin for you here. And there are certainly more performances to savor – specifically Dave Franco’s (brother of James), as a hipster teen drug dealer. Even Ice Cube shows up to remind us he was once a badass. But to say anything more of the gags would be criminal. And I really don’t want Channing Tatum to beat my dick off.
*A series that launched the career of Johnny Depp and was the career of Richard Grieco.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars