21 Jump Street (2012)

21 Jump Street (USA) Directed by Phil Lord; Chris Miller  Written by Jonah Hill; Michael Bacall  Starring Channing Tatum; Jonah Hill;  Brie Larson; Dave Franco; Rob Riggle; Ice Cube; Ellie Kemper; Nick Offerman; Chris Parnell;

When it comes to assessing comedies it’s sometimes hard to know if one should be grading on a curve. It is obvious that making even solid comedies that actually hang together as full stories isn’t easy. After all, if it was there would be more of them, wouldn’t there?

21 Jump Street, yet another film made from an old television series (and no the joke in the film saying as much doesn’t alter this fact or mitigate it any way) is written by co-star Jonah Hill and Scott Pilgrim scribe Michael Bacall. Chock full of gags and a few too many meta nods (that wind off coming off as apologies) it’s funny in places, though the absurdity and inconsistencies begin to add up, eventually rendering the whole undertaking tiresome.

Hill as the nerdy Schmidt and Channing Tatum as ex-jock Jenko are two rookie officers who were from different castes in the same high school, but became friends at the police academy through helping one another out with their individual weaknesses. The pair are a good match and have some nice moments together playing off their physical differences. Hill does his usual shtick, but the surprise is Tatum, who commits fully to the comedy - always the best move for someone who has made their bones in drama.

It is possible for a comedy to have plenty of funny moments and still not hold up? Step Brothers (and perhaps most Will Ferrell films over the past decade?) is a perfect example of a film with laugh out loud scenes that collapses in the third act. The best moments in 21 Jump Street are not nearly as funny as those in Step Brothers, though the film is at its best with the narcs interacting with the high school kids they befriend, with comedy being derived from the perspective the boys have gained; the changes in trends that have occurred; as well as the unresolved angst still haunting them.

Unfortunately, the screenwriters and directors evidently failed to recognize that the film lives in the scenes at the high school, a forum that is ripe for these two characters to rediscover themselves, and re-examine their friendship, by getting a second chance to do it again. What could have become a memorable comedy about generation gaps, popularity, and high school life in general, ala Fast Times, Sixteen Candles, Mean Girls, or Ten Things I Hate About You flounders with bad action sequences and cartoon villians. Like Pineapple Express, those in charge seemingly didn’t know what they had (in that case a potentially great stoner comedy about two new buddies) and allowed a bunch of over-the-top “stuff” to get in the way of the development of a story bearing any resemblance whatsoever to real life.

21 Jump Street is no different than the majority of comedies coming out of Hollywood, but that’s the point. Instead of working to go deeper, to make the story add up to something, the lowest common denominator is settled for at every pass. There was a wealth of material to be gleaned from a chubby, baby faced grown man dressing up in a Peter Pan costume to impress a high school girl and enjoy experiences he never got to have when he was younger, but all of it goes out the window in the name of another excruciatingly long and completely unnecessary chase scene.

Some of the supporting players (Ellie Kemper as a sex starved teacher who lusts after Jenko; Dave Franco as the eco-friendly drug dealer; and Brie Larson as Hill’s love interest) are solid, but we want to see more of them and the ways they are affected by the intrusion of these outsiders. Instead of implausibly dropping the narcs into the school with thirty days left in the year, why not have them there throughout, allowing these relationships to grow in a real way? Is it too much to want some laughs and a story that makes just a little bit of sense?

It is probably wrong to critique a film for what it isn’t, but with poorly structured stuff like this that wastes two good leads and a potentially very funny premise it’s almost impossible not to.

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