Directors: Phil Lord and Chris Miller
Screenplay: Michael Bacall; Story: Michael Bacall and Jonah Hill; based on 21 Jump Street (TV) created by Patrick Hasburgh and Stephen J. Cannell
Cinematography: Barry Peterson; Editing: Joel Negron
Production Design: Peter Wenham; Set Decoration: Bob Kensinger; Costumes; Leah Katznelson; Score: Mark Mothersbaugh
Stars: Jonah Hill (Morton Schmidt), Channing Tatum (Greg Jenko), Ice Cube (Cpt. Dickson), Brie Larson (Molly), Dave Franco (Eric), Ellie Kemper (Ms. Griggs), Rob Riggle (Mr. Walters)
Nostalgia seems to come in generational waves. In the self-indulgent 70’s, out of it audiences were nostalgic for the more straight-laced 50’s, with Grease lubricating box office coffers and Happy Days making viewers feel all warm and fuzzy toward The Fonze on TV. In the 90’s it was the 70’s (The Brady Bunch, Charlie’s Angels, Starsky and Hutch), and in the second decade of this brave new century we seem to have worked our way straight through the outer edges of the 80’s and to be standing on the cusp of a renaissance of interest in the early 90’s. 21 Jump Street joins the ranks of other big screen adaptations of 80’s ratings hits like The Dukes of Hazzard, Miami Vice and The A-Team and since it’s the only one of those mentioned whose series run bridged two decades, it may very well be in the vanguard of the next made-from-TV wave. Big screen parodies of TGIF titles for the Y2K generation seem imminent and inevitable.
This latest inculcation of wistful 80’s nostalgia for survivors of the trickling remnants of Reaganomics, 21 Jump Street insufferably dumbs down the cult series, one of the neophyte FOX network’s first big breakout hits, parlaying it into broadly played slapstick juvenilia. The TV show, which was considered risky and topical in its day and established Johnny Depp as a Tiger Beat heartthrob, was a police procedural specifically geared toward a teenage fan base, making cops and robbers a respectable pastime for older kids to daydream about. Those who came of age with 21 Jump Street will likely find that the show has been slighted, and feel that it warranted a more respectful tribute than this lampoon.
The movie’s two leads, Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, helped co-produce the film and Hill co-wrote the story, indication they had more than passing interest in it. Yet, as penned by Michael Bacall, the screenplay betrays no real affection for the show and only a glancing knowledge of what it was actually about. The tone of the series has been jettisoned along with the dramatic tensions, low key humor and multi-ethnic cast (alongside In Living Color, another area where early FOX broke new ground on TV), in favor of offensively foul mouthed, gross out comedy. With such a tenuous connection to its source of inspiration, the big screen version of 21 Jump Street could have been called High School Never Ends and the effect would have been much the same. This is Police Academy for the second millenia. There’s no trace of the show left in the movie, apart from the titular address, which is a reference point used as a throwaway gag (“You’ve been assigned to a beat down on 37 Jump Street. Wait… that doesn’t sound right.”), and the basic premise wherein babyfaced cops are assigned undercover beats as narcs infiltrating high schools to ferret out nefarious crimes.
Given that the movie bears only tangential relation to its progenitor, and how intent it is to buffoon the show by reducing it to the level of camp, which it certainly never was, it’s surprising so many former cast members chose to bestow their blessing by putting in an appearance. They must have a wonderfully tolerant, self effacing sense of humor. And there’s a shameless bit of critical extortion in inviting them back here. If the original stars all grant 21 Jump Street their implicit seal of approval by association, who are critics and audiences to naysay? They should know the value of their own show better than we would.
“We’re reviving a cancelled undercover police program from the 80’s, and revamping it for modern times,” Deputy Chief Hardy (Nick Offerman) deadpans as he demotes his two screw ups to the new division after they bungle their first arrest. The passing suggestion in his statement, that these modern cops are carrying on the early work of Depp and his crew, same as the modern young actors who have been cast here are carrying on the traditions of their babyfaced forebears, isn’t played through; the film gives no indication that it’s meant to be sentimentally passing the torch to the next generation. On the plus side, this post-modern sensibility permits 21 Jump Street to come clean concerning its own limitations. It’s hard to fault a film that can offer such an honest and clear-eyed self-assessment as Hardy does when he remarks “You see the guys in charge of this stuff lack creativity and are completely out of ideas. So all they do now is recycle sh*t from the past and expect us all not to notice.” The movie becomes its own worst critic, saving us a fair measure of the trouble, and having set its sights so low, earmarked itself as the lowest common denominator of screen comedy, there’s really nowhere to go but up.
Unfortunately such cheekily self-aware asides are only indulged in here at the beginning, and later during the absurdly extended car chase, in which the fleeing heroes (who have, like the audience, seen too many similar action flicks), keep waiting for one of the pursuing vehicles to complete the cliché by igniting in a spectacular explosion, and again at the end with the unexpected cameos. Hush my mouth, but 21 Jump Street deserves a makeup Oscar for its brilliant disguises; I never saw this one coming and it turns out to be the film’s funniest and most surprisingly clever twist. The reveal serves to throw us out of the movie though, by turning it completely on its axis. It’s as if Meryl Streep had suddenly popped up in the midst of Saw 6, inadvertently making us realize what inferior entertainment we’ve been sitting through by the contrast.
21 Jump Street mixes elements of irreverent stoner comedies (for younger viewers, and those young in mind, who find it a scream watching people get high) such as the cult comedy Pineapple Express (which starred James Franco, elder brother of Dave Franco who plays Eric here), and wildly mismatched cop buddy pictures like Rush Hour. More than anything (certainly more than the TV show), 21 Jump Street bears comparison to those high school wish-fulfillment fantasies for grownups like Never Been Kissed and 17 Again, in which adults are accorded a second chance to relive their youth, to experience all the things they missed out on the first time around, the lack of which has served to arrest their development. The two cops here, Jonah Hill’s sad sack Schmidt and Channing Tatum’s Paleolithic Jenko, approach their vocation as a glorified, grownup variation of cops and robbers. They want to be officers simply because they think it would be cool (“Welcome to a lifetime of being bad asses.”), like all children, craving the power, respect and authority that come ready made with a badge, pointing loaded weapons at one another (“Bang! You’re dead.” “No, you’re dead.”) in a manner that doesn’t make them appear too many years removed from making pistols out of their fingers. The fact that these two are meant to be taken for overage infants is made even more apparent by the high school play they make shambles of as thoroughly as the Marx Brothers ever did the opera. It’s Peter Pan, the penultimate tale of the boy who refused to grow up.
Being returned to high school is a particularly suitable punishment for Schmidt and Jenko, one that perfectly fits the crime, since at heart they’re still adolescents themselves, failing to launch the first time around because they missed out on that fundamental rite of passage ritual that is senior prom (Schmidt was rejected by the girl he asked, Jenko was banned because of bad grades). The schematics of this reversal of fortune farce is visually diagrammed in this very first scene as the two men occupy separate spaces of the screen in a manner that flatly states how near yet so far they are, united in misery by their common exile from the big dance while still widely separated by circumstances. Jenko kicks a trash can over in his impotent fury; Schmidt trying to emulate his idol tries the same gesture, nearly breaking his ankle in the process. It’s clear that they’ll make perfect partners because they’re equally immature.
Though presumably adults now, when the two meet back up at the police academy they immediately lapse back into their adolescent patterns of behavior, name calling, Jenko trying to cheat off Schmidt’s test, Schmidt thrilled as any junior leaguer to get to hang around with the popular kid for the first time in his life. Despite the presumed satisfaction Schmidt must derive from turning the tables on his former tormentor, 21 Jump Street is less a revenge of the nerds concept than an odd couple comedy featuring the most mismatched pair of screen brothers since Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny Devito played Twins. Jenko, who once persecuted Schmidt (“Not so slim Shady”) for his physical shortcomings, now encourages him to be more athletic, giving him a physical workout, helping him pass the police academy’s rigorous endurance tests, jumping over cars, riding bikes, chasing down perps, while Schmidt is meant to bring out the dormant intelligence well buried beneath his former bully’s lowbrow exterior. Forcing him to use his mind, the one muscle he’s let grow weak and flabby through disuse, he helps Jenko study for the police exam and memorize his Miranda rights.
Just as a little bit of each man rubs off on the other, being transplanted back to high school creates an acceptable atmosphere for them to let their inner children out to play. The schluby milquetoast gets to take a walk on the wild side, rubbing shoulders with the in crowd and unleashing his party animal with the aid of pharmaceutical enhancements, while alpha dog Jenko finds himself outcast this go round, discovering, in the movie’s most nicely disarming moments, an unexpected safe haven among the same nerd set he once plagued. This absurdly contrived, prince and the pauper flip flop is literalized when both men’s school records get criss crossed, allowing each to experience how the other half lives. Being taken back to school (literally) is meant to be an educational experience in more ways than one for the both of them, and the lessons they learn are treated with a didacticism appropriate for the academic setting. They’re spelled out so clear that the writing might be on the wall, or rather scrawled across the chalkboards in letters three feet high.
The comedy starts out promisingly enough with the two running smack into an insurmountable generation gap, realizing how vastly times have changed in the few spare years since they graduated, with texting and YouTube having irrevocably changed the landscape of the nation’s schools. New, unspecified cliques have cropped up and along with them a revolution in what’s considered cool and trendy. A horrified Jenko blames the popularity of TV’s Glee (which will probably be adapted for the screen itself a generation hence) for the seismic shift and his accompanying disorientation, but the movie doesn’t really follow through with this aspect of the set up, failing to build comedy by systematically showing how far out of their depths these two men are in trying to translate the latest slang, referee teenage drama, navigate the inanity of prepubescent pop culture (“You are here because you some Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus lookin’ muthas.” Ice Cube’s gruff police captain succinctly barks) as they try to fit in. Though they somehow manage to outfox the high school drug smugglers half their age, there’s no possibility that the men might demonstrate how age and wisdom beats youth and beauty every time or why their generation was superior to the current one, because the kids come off as more mature than the adults do, understandably allaying Eric’s suspicions that anyone who behaves as childishly as Schmidt and Jenko could possibly be undercover agents.
Nor does the movie fully explore the intriguing suggestion of actors playing characters who must themselves ‘act’ the part of made up, fictional teenagers, regressing as they begin living the parts, losing themselves in the role. Trying to pull him back before he forgets himself, Jenko accuses Schmidt of having gotten too caught up in the part he’s playing (“You’re in too deep!”), upon discovering he’s been secretly filling out college applications. It’s a stretch to ask us to believe that Schmidt never pursued higher education, as smart as he is, that this is another aspect of his youth calling for a do over, and insinuating a sequel- the ending has the distraught Jenko and jubilant Schmidt set to be assigned to an undercover college sting.
We never learn why the men are lodged with Schmidt’s parents (Jenko’s are never mentioned) but the dislocation helps to blur the distinction in Schmidt’s mind that he’s an adult now and no longer a little boy. Consequently, his exasperation when his mother mortifyingly interrupts his conversation with a girl on the phone to blow kisses from the other line or his reactions when Jenko’s displays of affection toward her become too familiar, bear the humorous ring of truth. When Schmidt’s parents return home to find that their ‘sons’ have thrown a wild party in their absence, they patronizingly sit them down for a lecture as though they really were talking to teenagers, putting them back in diapers by decreeing that if they want to act like children they can be treated like children, complete with groundings and household chores. The humor here derives from expanding on the age old cliché by making the guilty party adults who have freely and foolishly provided drugs, alcohol and mating opportunities to underage minors.
Hot off his surprise Oscar nomination, Jonah Hill’s reputation as a comedian seems to have reached critical mass; he’s in the enviable position of delivering the goods to an appreciative public now conditioned to believe he can do no wrong. Consequently, critical appraisal of 21 Jump Street has been more kindly disposed than the movie really warrants considering it’s nothing out of the norm. The romantic straight man and the funny little fat fellow is a surefire, time honored pairing that stretches as far back as Abbott and Costello. But while the uncomfortable studs stand around stiffly in their boiled dinner jackets, convenient buttresses for the manic comic mania swirling around them, their partners steal the show by providing all the funny lines. Moviemakers of late seem to be trying to package Hill in this manner by repeatedly casting him opposite actors known primarily for their physical appeal, Brad Pitt in Moneyball last summer and Channing Tatum here.
He’s lost a drastic amount of weight over the past year, ostensibly in preparation for this part, but he’s still been cast as the funny fat man, a latter day John Candy or Chris Farley, a role Hill could have easily filled at his original girth. An ample amount of 21 Jump Street’s time is spent poking fun at his short, pudgy Schmidt’s physical ineptitude, in contrast to genetically engineered superman Jenko. Whether squeezed into green tights, breathlessly bicycling after an enormous perp fleeing through the park on foot and becoming too winded to overtake him, or falling flat on his face as he clambers over furniture trying to get a drop on the dealer during the final shootout, the jokes revolve around how lumberingly out of shape he’s supposed to be, as if they’d been thought up to accommodate Hill’s former figure and never rewritten to account for his present size. There’s a curious disconnect between concept and execution here.
While Tatum is meant to represent the idealized Hollywood dream we go to movies to lose ourselves in, ham handed Hill stands in for the average schmuck, with all the neuroses and insecurities the audience can more readily identify with, giving us an access point, letting us connect with the character in a more direct and immediate way. The bright idea of the story the devilish actor helped devise however, is in delving beyond surface appearances by reversing these traditional roles, leading Tatum to feel less than perfect (about both his age and his IQ), and writing a shameless plug for himself that allows him to be both struttingly narcissistic and romantic (he gets the girl in this one). Perhaps the rapid weight loss has gone to his head, like getting the bends from surfacing too suddenly.
Initially Hill’s Schmidt is worried that the old hellish social structure will be reinforced once the two new friends are returned to high school, that Jenko will again spurn him in favor of the popular kids, despite his assurances to the contrary. When Schmidt is accepted by the in crowd, however, it’s he himself who proves susceptible to that same snare. It’s he who’s now embarrassed by his attachment to Jenko, fearing it will tarnish his reputation, that he’ll be considered uncool by association. Allowing his newfound popularity to make a monster of him, Schmidt forgets who his real friends are, forgets who he is. He remembers how far he’s come however, and this selective memory is motivated by his fear of sliding right back down to the bottom of the pecking order. Living the gilded dream for the first time in his life, it’s little wonder that Schmidt doesn’t want to be rudely awoken by being returned to reality, his true age and his day job. If he had his rathers, he’d stay this age forever, never growing up, stuck in his present state of perpetually arrested adolescence, permanently playing Peter Pan.
Schmidt’s desire to remain a boy is compounded by his romance with Brie Larson’s Molly. The script sidesteps the dicey subject of the heroes’ dalliance with a high schooler by upping her from underage to just eighteen, but the question still arises as to why an adult male should feel so attracted to a schoolgirl still in her teens, even when she’s played as maturely and sanely as Larson plays Molly (Emma Stone was originally considered for the role but had to bow out due to scheduling conflicts). For high school comedies that recycle the image of the most popular girl in school as an icy, prissy prom queen, she has a refreshingly down to earth, well scrubbed quality. Gurgling with excitement and game for anything, she puts one in mind of a squinty eyed, healthily fleshy young Renée Zellweger.
The implication is that Schmidt, traumatized by the rejection of that girl he once asked to prom, has never proven capable of completing the sexual act which, in the film’s phallic, Freudian terms, is associated with his inability to shoot his ‘gun.’ Taking the old cliché of shooting-guns-as-proxy-for-sex, the movie makes this the focus of its satire where Schmidt’s concerned, equating shooting with, well, the sweet release of shooting. That the two concepts are interchangeable in the men’s minds becomes clear when Jenko dry humps a handcuffed criminal in blissed out pride at taking him into custody and, when given the option, chooses to blow away the assailants he’s pursuing rather than be blown himself, the movie’s other favorite past time. Schmidt’s problem is that he’s gun shy. He can’t bring himself to shoot when he should, even when that giant biker tramples him over, same as he chokes every time he tries to ask a girl to prom. Sometimes he’ll find his gun discharging at the most inopportune times, such as when it fires off twice, like celebratory flares, after the men make their first arrest; it seems to have a mind of its own (21 Jump Street serves as a pretty persuasive anti-NRA ad by showing us guns being placed in the hands of such itchy fingered loose cannons.)
The logical development of the Schmidt character should arise from his proving himself capable of pulling the trigger, both on the battlefield and in the bedroom, so why has he been paired with a little girl who he can’t complete the act with for legal purposes. Hill frequently plays young, and can get away with it because of his cherubic looks, but if he looked his age (or if Larson’s Molly looked hers) we’d likely be creeped out by the coupling (significantly, Tatum’s tall, filled out Jenko is preyed upon by adults in the film, rather than the teens he moves amongst.). Screen comedians haven’t been able to get away with this sort of thing since the days when Woody Allen romanced Muriel Hemingway in Manhattan. It would seem that Schmidt, whose emotional trauma has left him physically impaired, is more sexually confident around younger girls because he feels intimidated by the experienced women in his own age range, but the movie, for all its other extremes, coyly shies away from the obvious questions this romance raises. It certainly picks and chooses the moments when it wishes to display discreet good taste.
While puckish Hill looks as if he could still fit in high school, it’s absurd to suggest that the strapping, muscular Tatum Channing could pass for a teenager, so audiences must suspend their disbelief as to why everyone still accepts the guise at face value, why the kids continue incriminating themselves by peddling him narcotics. Their willful blindness to what seems so obvious to audiences becomes part of the movie’s humor. The script wisely makes an ongoing joke of Tatum’s unseemly growth spurt, which causes all the adults in his vicinity to experience inappropriate yearnings and itchings and stuff for this man trying to pass as a boy, the high school coach (Rob Riggle) ogling his physical development (“You have exceptional muscle tone there young man. When did you go through puberty, like at seven or something?”), and his chemistry teacher (Ellie Kemper) panting out Freudian slips (“Let me check out your chest… Let me check out your test.”) that seem to be leading her toward Mary Kay Latourno land.
Real teenagers on the other hand instinctively reject him, sensing that something is off, with the suspicious Eric accusing “There’s a lot of things that make me wonder about you. Your taste in music. The fact that you look like a 40 year old man.” and Jenko’s chemistry partner (Dax Flame) observing “You look really old. Were you held back?” (the overly sensitive Jenko snaps back “Well you look super young. Were you held forward?”). Some teenagers do look like fully developed adults, same as some adults (such as the ones recruited for the 21 Jump Street program) could still pass for teenagers, but the movie doesn’t derive enough visual humor from Tatum’s size discrepancy and there’s no payoff. The distracted script sets up such a promisingly funny situation with him at the outset, but then fails to follow through with it. There was obviously more to the chemistry teacher affair than what’s been left in the film, for instance, and what’s been edited out makes her schizophrenic behavior toward Jenko at the prom finale seem absolutely unfathomable.
Rather than emphasizing Tatum’s physique as most of his other movies have done, the script instead chooses to focus on his funny bone and comic smarts, making this role a different sort of showcase for the actor, who seems naturally suited to silly sub-teen slapstick, allowing him to reveal that there’s more to him than impressive armature. In this film, the last place you’d expect to find it, he gets to reveal a gentler, more vulnerable side, such as when he’s stung at the rejection of Schmidt, who he overhears belittling him and his new chemistry club friends for the benefit of the cool kids, and smarting every time anyone broaches the subject of his questionable IQ. Tatum has found a way to use that dopey, dazed expression of his (he resembles a punchy boxer who’s taken one too many shots to the head) to full advantage in this one. His usual somnambulant walkthrough and failure to fully connect with his co-stars makes perfect sense in this context. Though he’s become more emboldened on screen since his SNL stint, he’s not a skilled improvisational comedian, so some of his work, such as his arrival at band practice under the influence, seems haphazard, the result of blatant desperation and poor direction, while other scenes are legitimately amusing. His hooded eyes and impassivity still don’t give us enough though. When he should be registering emotions, his blank face is too inexpressive to properly get across what his character is meant to be feeling.
Insofar as Tatum is concerned, 21 Jump Street is a brains vs. brawn comedy, and the finer qualities of his performance begin to shine through as Jenko becomes more intelligent, in proportion to Schmidt’s becoming more popular. While Schmidt starts thinking with his d*ck for the first time, Jenko, who bungled his prior arrest because he didn’t know the words to read the perp his Miranda rights (“I think it goes something like ‘You have the right to remain silent…’ I’m sure you’ve heard this before”), uses his head to plant the wiretap on Eric’s cell phone that solves the case, and concocts a flaming cocktail with his newfound chemistry skills to bring the high speed police pursuit to a screeching halt. Now that he’s hit rock bottom and has nothing left to lose, Jenko can embrace the dormant intelligence and inner dweeb he’d long suppressed for fear it would make him unpopular, reading a poem composed on the subject of positive and negative ions in front of his class while wearing a hoodie covered with models of molecular atoms, and greeting his new chemistry club buds with the secret light saber salute.
In his way, he’s every nerd’s dream friend, someone big and brawny enough to protect them from bullies, but who’s just as interested in chess and dungeons and dragons as they are, another reason why he and Schmidt make such a good team. When a fight starts at the party they’ve thrown to get in with the right crowd for instance, it’s Jenko who has Schmidt’s back, smashing heads and breaking bones right and left, oblivious to the fact that he’s fighting teenagers. Playing a Neanderthal (it must be admitted he’s very good at this, same as Brendan Fraser was in Encino Man), Tatum slings the scrawny revelers over his shoulders like a lowland gorilla, but to his friends he’s as loyal and trustworthy as a Labrador (willingly taking a bullet for Schmidt). Nerds fire Jenko’s mind with knowledge of covalent bonds and rocket science, and he returns the favor by affording them protection and prostitutes as prom dates.
The early impression is that the new social awareness that earmarks the most popular students will be treated as a running gag for this determinedly ‘daring,’ un-PC comedy, same as it was in PCU, every word and action of the old school heroes being misinterpreted as an insult in these new, overly sensitive times. While it doesn’t follow through on this, the movie bespeaks a comparable mentality, made apparent in Schmidt’s contention that Jenko’s having refrained from bashing a kid who they later learn is gay would have actually been more homophobic than cold cocking him in ignorance, the way he did. The entire movie operates along these same skewered lines; all subjects are open game, nothing is sacred. This is anything for a laugh comedy wielded as equal opportunity insult.
Though Dustin Nguyen was a major cast member in the original series, he only turns up on television screens that are inexplicably shot at, and what Asians there are (scholastically inclined eggheads) have been negligibly typecast. While it should be commended that there are at least some speaking black faces, every single one, apart from Holly Robinson’s thankless cameo (why wasn’t this fine actress who was second billed right after Depp in the original series, not afforded a juicy cameo equal to the boys?) is depicted as a figure for ridicule, such as the gay, black student Jenko takes a swing at, or as an intimidating figure of authority (the principal who bans Jenko from prom, Ice Cube’s police captain who fires them), or even as the source of all evil, such as DeRay Davis’ Domingo, the leader of that drug smuggling biker gang who keeps returning from the dead. His first burning is the result of his collision with a truck transporting chickens and the duel association of burning blacks and fried chicken is intended to be either pointedly insulting or, if completely unintentional, is inexcusable in its ignorance. Surely this can’t be what Ice Cube intended when he commanded his captive audience to ‘embrace your stereotypes.’ Even silly slapstick should be held accountable for displaying some measure of sociological awareness and responsibility. At moments like these, the writers’ own aggressively juvenile inner children seem to be coming out to play, striving to prove their boyish bravado by taking controversial race baiting a bit too far. But then considering 21 Jump Street’s own professed, catch-22 rational, would it have been more racist to have not made a black man the butt of this ‘joke?
Apart from blacks, the movie displays a blasé disregard for the welfare of people in general, such as when our cowardly ‘heroes’ commandeer car after car, indiscriminately endangering innocent bystanders in their self interested attempt to escape from the bad guys when they’re supposed to be serving and protecting the public. When we’re asked to snicker at Schmidt for praying to a plaster cast of a Christ modeled with Korean features, the humor appears to be derived from two sources- the fact that other ethnicities would want to worship a God cast in their own image, and the fact that a white man would find spiritual sustenance in praying to a deity of color (as if the common effigy of a white Christ were any more historically accurate).
The film proliferates with insensitive homophobic references to ‘butt munchers,’ ‘butt popping,’ ‘beating your d*ck off,’ dedicated Schmidt’s obliging affirmation that he’ll “suck a d*ck” if he has to, a doodle of a penis on a picture of Schmidt as a child, drugged track star Schmidt using a lead pipe as a simulated phallus for the coach to tug on, the janitor who walks in on Schmidt and Jenko trying to induce each other to vomit after ingesting the illegal narcotics and assuming they’re engaged in some bizarre new sex practice, the coach similarly using his fingers to insert the stoned Schmidt’s lolling tongue back into his mouth. The tagline for the movie poster, “The only thing getting blown tonight is their cover.” pretty much sums up 21 Jump Street’s puerile mentality. I haven’t seen a mainstream release with such a pronounced fixation on oral sex since that withered old wraith kept jamming her fist down everyone’s throat in Drag Me to Hell. The final gag even hinges on the concept when the cops prove too antsy to pick up the male privy member that’s just been shot off in the line of duty, and the handcuffed criminal tries retrieving it with his own mouth so it can be sown back on by surgeons. Castration as the suitable subject of screen humor hasn’t so graphically occupied center stage since the Piranha remake. It’s used metaphorically in modern comedy, as a way for the writers to emasculate overbearingly macho villains.
Bacall and Hill, the true odd couple here, have attempted to create the semblance of characters but to no avail since the slapstick and sight gags they’ve contrived aren’t at all character based, don’t sensibly snowball out of who these people are on the page. It’s the same forced, anything for a laugh desperation that we’ve seen in a dozen other contemporary comedies, the majority of which feature immature, emotionally arrested men at their core. The thrust of the humor seems to hinge on a guessing game played with the audience to see just how far the directors, in all good sense, will let the writers and actors take the outrageous material. In large measure we have the juvenile high school hijinks of American Pie to thank for the raunchy face of modern movie comedy, so it seems fitting that a trailer for the latest American sequel plays as a chaser to the main attraction.
The gross out humor that serves as the forte of Hill and the current generation of screen comics is in ample evidence here. Bodily functions become the focus for much of the farce. When Jenko upchucks all over Schmidt near the end, after proving unable to projectile vomit earlier despite his friends phallic fingers being helpfully jammed down his throat (“Is it me?” an uncertain Schmidt asks to Jenko’s impotent reply “I’m sorry. Sometimes I just can’t.”), it’s like a sign of true love, spontaneous eruption. Tatum Channing, who spent this time last year making eyes at Jamie Bell in the The Eagle, again finds himself firmly lodged in the midst of a baffling bromance and, just as Mel Brooks comedies frequently let rip homophobic slurs so audiences wouldn’t get the wrong impression and assume the main leads were themselves gay, 21 Jump Street seems to be trying to deflect attention from the obvious.
Much of the movie’s humor evolves from the homoerotic antics of the two male leads, encouraging audiences to titter and guffaw at their apparent obliviousness to how flagrantly gay such ‘platonic’ behavior seems. It’s hard to know what exactly we’re supposed to make of Jenko walking into the bedroom he shares with Schmidt and crawling and bouncing all over him, same as he’d earlier made pumping motions over that perp in the park, and will again at the party, simulating sex with one of the scrawny bystanders he heaves into his arms. Or when this dim bulb testosterone bull threatens to beat a perp’s d*ck off with both hands (“I think what he was trying to say was, he’s gonna punch you so many times round the genital area that your d*ck’s just gonna fall off.” Schmidt corrects), suggests ‘fingering’ each other’s mouths will better help he and Schmidt to hurl, claims to have gone to school in France only to hear his classmate suggestively respond (in French), that it is the language of love, goes cross eyed from his lab partner’s constant, insinuating winking, or that gym coach whose interest in him seems to border on the pedophilic. Jenko’s frat boy frolicking seems such a result of displacement psychology, we keep waiting for him to come to a deeper understanding of his true nature, but he can’t get the words out, choking them back down just as Schmidt does every time he asks a girl to prom.
While Schmidt pursues heterosexual romance during the course of the movie, Jenko, whose body is ogled by both men and women, remains free of any liaisons, despite the captain’s initial concern that he won’t be able to keep it in his pants (is this why the chemistry teacher subplot was excised, to show us he could be all business when the situation demanded?). Instead, with all the knowledge he’s acquired of covalent bonds and how positive and negative ions attract, Jenko only appears to be drawn to his polar opposite Schmidt. In these simplistically specious terms, when that underage drug dealer is hauled off to prison at the end, he seems to be being punished less for his criminal misdeeds than for having tried to steal away Schmidt’s affections (“He’s my best friend!” a triumphant Jenko heckles after him). So when Schmidt, having again been forsaken by the female sex, asks Jenko to prom without getting tongue tied as he’d always done when asking girls, it feels right and proper that both these guys who missed the big event back in the day, should end up making it together.
When they arrive by stretch limo in their matching white tuxes, they’re like two bridegrooms on their way to the alter, trailing their posse of equally misfit wingmen, in a slo-mo, self effacing LMFAO manner that may put you in mind of Paul Rudd’s rag tag wedding party in I Love You Man. It’s nothing like what they imagined, yet at the same time everything they ever dreamed it would be (complete with accompanying doves), and the sublime sensation is that these overage infants have finally grown up by realizing what’s truly important in life- friendship, loyalty and being true to one’s self. Having relived their youth and gotten it out of their system, as well as discovering unexpected aptitudes latent in their own natures, they can finally move on with their adult lives.
There’s nothing more depressing than comedy that gets you down. I don’t know why I was expecting (hoping against hope) that, despite all indications to the contrary, 21 Jump Street would be a better movie than it is, perhaps because the series was such a touchstone for my generation. Though adapting an older show, the writers draw their main inspirations from modern teen TV, not just Glee, which get’s a ribbing, perhaps because Tatum’s acting career was dissed on the A Very Glee Christmas episode a few seasons back (Note to self: Do Not tick off Channing Tatum). Cory Montieth’s character on that show seems to have served as at least partial inspiration for the vertically challenged, lamebrain Jenko, as did the witless prom queen Lydia from MTV’s Teen Wolf series, considering the similar manner in which she proved her smarts by mixing a flaming cocktail (the conception of Rob Riggle’s comically clueless coach appears cribbed from the same source).
What good jokes the movie has, such as when that mountain of a biker is barreling down on Schmidt, deaf to his entreaties to stop, the expected fight erupts at the party with the spineless Schmidt attempting to defend himself with his feet then cheering the blasted revelers with his invincible nonchalance at having been stabbed in the back (literally), when the two men are given guns for protection by the drug dealer and, unable to restrain their excitement, blow their cover by mowing down every bottle set out for target practice, or the four stages of wigging out are reshuffled like a deck of interchangeable playing cards, they’re generally hammered into the ground, or have a stupid one-liner dubbed overtop them which dampens the effortless fun. The movie may be paced to the pumpingly insistent rhythms of club beats but that can’t replace the necessity of consistently strong comic timing. This is scattershot, hit or miss humor; gun shy Schmidt proved a surer shot.
21 Jump Street suggests that being smart is the new cool, but then negates its own argument by dumbing down its material. The movie is set in high school, but with its cartoonishly broad strokes it betrays an even more elementary mentality. Like most modern comedy, 21 Jump Street seems aimed at the puerile mindset of fifteen year old boys, which helps to clarify who precisely the target audience tends to be for such monkeyshines. It’s rather surprising then that the movie makers chose not to trim more material out to qualify for a PG-13 rating, making seeing the movie at least legal for its specified demographic.
This raucous, party hardy movie’s not so far removed from Project X, also scripted by Michael Bacall and running concurrently, so one wonders what in the world can be going on the minds of the movie’s makers when they take on the guise of guidance counselors to educate us by slipping in little life lessons. Surely they can’t believe viewers take such inane silliness seriously. The visceral enjoyment obviously being derived from indulging its overage heroes, allowing them to wallow in keg parties, recreational drug taking, entrapping them into taking a hit to prove that they’re down, high speed car chases, underage drinking and statutory sexing (good times, people) makes it clear that this is as much an attempt to allow audiences to experience such thrills vicariously, making them seem fun and hip and harmless, before flip flopping and encouraging them to drink responsibly.
The insincere ‘Just Say No’ slogan merely comes off as another silly wink back at the Reagan era, and the half hearted way this tee-total public service announcement is presented makes it clear that no one involved expects it to be taken seriously. Somewhere along the line, while we were being prodded to laugh at the funny side of drug induced clowning, the sobering fact that a kid has overdosed was lost sight of. The basis of this comedy is certainly no laughing matter and, considering the impressionable target audience for movies like this, one wonders what exactly the writers were smoking.