21 Jump Street (2012) – Directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller – Starring Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Brie Larson, Dave Franco, Ellie Kemper, Rob Riggle, Ice Cube, Nick Offerman, Peter DeLuise, Holly Robinson Peete, and Johnny Depp.
There’s a lot going against 21 JUMP STREET – it stars Jonah Hill (who I honestly think I’d rather see doing quirky dramas like Moneyball instead of silly comedies) and Channing Tatum (who I never remember being intentionally funny before) in a comedic update of a TV show from the ’80s. Making things tougher on the film (though none of this is JUMP STREET’s fault), I was watching it in an old, semi-crowded theater on a crappy print. (It was the 10 PM show at the $3 casino cinema.) I’d heard good things about it, but I didn’t have high expectations.
Five minutes in, I was hooked.
21 JUMP STREET is an incredibly funny movie that does a smart thing – it tells a simple story very effectively, building most of the plot elements around the triangulation of Schmidt and Jenko’s job as police officers, the high school location of the their undercover investigation, and Schmidt and Jenko’s insecurities.
Let me say that again in case you skimmed over it – 21 JUMP STREET is an incredibly funny movie, and I come away from this film as impressed with Jonah Hill as I did after Moneyball. Hill co-wrote JUMP STREET with Michael Bacall (who also co-wrote the excellent Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) and they keep their script focused and driven, making the humor serve the story instead of simply stringing together a bunch of funny bits. Hill also wisely casts himself in the straighter role, allowing Tatum to handle more of the outrageous comedy.
Hill and Tatum make an interesting duo – they have the typical cinematic tall guy and fat guy bit look down, but unlike Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Spade and Farley, Hill and Tatum largely invert the stereotype, with the fat one being the practical one and the skinny one being the dummy. (And, yeah, I hate to use such base terms and paint with such a broad brush, but this is a pretty standard comedic configuration.) It works, too, because Hill is very good at playing a the put-upon guy who’s personal pain serves as the basis for the film’s comedic debasement of him, and Tatum is very good as the popular guy who’s used to doing the debasing.
Schmidt and Jenko (Hill and Tatum) went to high school together, but were on opposite sides of the cool line. Neither one of them got to go to the prom – Schmidt because no one would go with him and Jenko because his poor grades got him barred.
Years later, they unwittingly enroll in the police academy at the same. “Hey, Not-So-Slim Shady!” Jenko calls out, a reference to Schmidt’s Eminem-inspired look in high school. Very quickly, they realize they can help each other since Schmidt isn’t so good with the physical (being overweight) and Jenko isn’t so good with the tests (being dumb). Before we know it, they’ve both passed the Academy and been made partners.
Impressively, JUMP STREET moves through all of this set-up efficiently. The two guys are bike cops and they screw up a bust and they get kicked over into the Jump Street program, where they meet Captain Dickson (Ice Cube) at an abandoned church that serves as the program’s headquarters. Dickson sends them back to high school, but because Jenko can’t remember his cover identity, he ends up having to live as the science nerd and Schmidt gets enrolled in drama. It’s another smart twist, having these two guys live high school over, but this time from the other’s point of view.
Not only is the script smart, but the casting and acting is top notch. Ice Cube totally embraces the “angry black captain” stereotype, and Hill and Bacall’s script uses these stereotypes to its benefit, having Dickson address them directly. “Yeah, I’m black!” he shouts at them from the pulpit. “I worked hard to get where I am, and yes, sometimes I get angry!” After dressing Schmidt and Jenko down over their types, he tells them to “embrace your stereotypes!”
Which they then almost immediately screw up and have to live life as the other one.
There’s plenty of stupid humor here – the guys end up getting tricked into using drugs, they purposely throw a huge party at Schmidt’s parent’s house, the bad guy ends up getting his dick blown off, which he then tries to pick up with his mouth – but there’s also clever humor, too, like when Schmidt starts hitting on a high school girl (they make a point to tell you she’s 18), but does it anachronistically, calling her instead of texting her.
In a move the film didn’t have to make, but did, 21 JUMP STREET is set in the same continuity as the TV show – it’s just 25 years later and everything’s seen through a comedic lens. Johnny Depp, Peter DeLuise, and Holly Robinson Peete all return to reprise their roles from the TV show, and it’s a nice touch that probably 90% of the people in the theater completely missed. Maybe they knew Depp used to be in the show, but it’s not like DeLuise and Peete’s involvement got the crowd hootering and hollering in approval. Even “Jenko” is a shout-out to the original captain of the Jump Street program, who only lasted
JUMP STREET was directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the directing duo who made the excellent Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and they display a wonderful gift for balancing the comedic with the dramatic.
I saw 21 JUMP STREET Saturday night and then went to a different theater to see Men in Black 3 on Monday (review coming shortly), and it’s not even close as to which was the better movie. I laughed more times and with greater intensity in the first 15-20 minutes of JUMP STREET than I did in the entire length of MIB3. At the end of JUMP STREET, they tease a set-up for a sequel where Schmidt and Jenko go to college, and I’m honestly looking forward to seeing it.