Every year, it seems like there’s at least one movie that has awful trailers but turns out to be amazing. In 2009, it was The Hangover. Last year, it was Bridesmaids. This year, it’s 21 Jump Street – a fast-paced crude comedy that pulls off its Judd Apatow-like mix of cringeworthy humor and heart with panache!
Taking its core concept from the hit TV series that made Johnny Depp a star, 21 Jump Street takes a couple of woeful rookie cops and sends them back to high school to uncover a drug ring and put away its kingpin. Then, ignoring the dramatic tone of the series, it goes its own way – straight to R-rated comedy heaven.
In 2005, Schmidt [Jonah Hill] and Jenko [Channing Tatum] were, respectively, the cool jock and unpopular nerd in high school [the film opens with Schmidt trying to ask the hottest girl in school to the prom and choking as Jenko looks on and snipes from the sidelines].
Now they’re cops who have become friends when Jenko helped Schmidt pass the academy physical and Schmidt returned the favor by coaching Jenko for the written exam. When their first bust goes wrong – they couldn’t remember their collar’s Miranda rights – their disgusted boss ships them off to an undercover program that’s being recycled from the ‘80s. They report to a Korean Catholic church where the surly Captain Dickson [Ice Cube] gives them their assignment via a hysterical riff on stereotypes.
When they report to their assigned high school, they screw up from the get-go – apparently things have changed, and the cool kids are the smart kids who are environmentally aware and the unpopular kids are the jocks. To make matters worse, Schmidt and Jenko get their cover identities backwards so that the athletic Jenko finds himself in AP chemistry and the brainiac Schmidt is drafted onto the high school track team.
The key to 21 Jump Street is that the uncomfortable humor – as when PhysEd teacher Mr. Walters [Rob Riggle] notes that Jenko must have hit puberty at, like, seven, or when his chem. teacher, Ms Griggs [Ellie Kemper] goes on passive-aggressive riffs about how hot he is – is matched by the sweetness of Schmidt being seduced by popularity and trying to relive high school as the hip guy.
While Jenko recoils from Ms Griggs’ attentions, Schmidt finds himself falling for the hottest girl in school, Molly [Brie Larson] – who seems to be reciprocating! While Jenko is getting help from his ‘science buddies’ to further the investigation, Schmidt has infiltrated the dealers but is too caught up in his popularity to pay much attention. Along the way, their friendship threatens to founder.
And I haven’t even mentioned that the two are staying with Schmidt’s parents – who have no concept of what undercover means – which leads to an embarrassingly funny encounter with one of Schmidt’s aunts in a department store. And, yes, prom does figure into the proceedings with a lovely John Woo quote or two, to boot.
21 Jump Street’s screenplay was written by Michael Bacall, from a story by Bacall and Hill, and directed with great verve by Phil Lord and Chris Miller. Given the talent onscreen, I expect that there was more than a little improvisation going on – especially in the requisite party while the parents are away sequence – which achieves more laughs in five or ten minutes than Project X generated in its entirety.
While virtually everyone in the film is terrific, I have to make special note of Channing Tatum’s performance. In his previous films he has frequently been referred to as wooden [I referred to him as ‘noted fencepost Channing Tatum’ when I reviewed Haywire], but in 21 Jump Street, he gives a totally committed, totally engaging and utterly hysterical performance. Maybe he should limited himself to off the wall action-comedies in future, because he is a revelation here – matching Jonah Hill throughout.
Dave Franco is also a standout as the popular, environmentally aware, smart kid who is the school’s dealer.
Of course, as with most comedies, there are gags that I wish I could unsee, but much fewer than I expected. I’d estimate that nearly 80% of the film’s gags work – many spectacularly. It might be too early to say that 21 Jump Street is the funniest film of the year, but if a funnier one comes along, it will have to be darned near perfect!
Final Grade: A-
Photos by Scott Garfield/courtesy of Sony