21 March 2012

JUMP TO IT

We all know by now that 21 Jump Street is actually, like, startlingly good, right? That, even though it looks hokey and dumb, it turns that dumbness to its advantage, makes a tool of it, et cetera. Well, if you managed to avoid hearing all that, you know it now: the movie is sort of pretty much awesome. There are a lot of theoretical reasons that explain why, but the short answer is that there are a lot of reasons: this film does as good a job as any movie has in months, at least, of stuffing in just about every sort of comedy you can name, from ruthless, claws-out social satire on down to the hallowed dick joke, and treating every vein of humor from the highest brow to the lowest with the exact same level of commitment and integrity. It is funny because it is pointed and smart, and it is also funny because it is unusually crass, but the chief takeaway here should be that it is funny, far more than an inveterate Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum hater like myself would have credited as being possible.

Less a remake or reboot of the 1980s series remembered mostly for kickstarting Johnny Depp's career, than a story set in a funhouse mirror version of the same universe, the movie first posts Hill and Tatum as a pair of high-school rivals, Schmidt and Jenko - the fat, smart, ugly geek and the idiot jock with a cruel streak and lanky long hair - who graduate in 2005, and some time later end up in police academy in Metro City. There, they become friends for the pragmatic reason that Jenko is too dumb to pass the exams and Schmidt is too out-of-shape to succeed in the physical training without some outside coaching; after graduation, and after bottoming out as cops, the team is assigned to an undercover program that sends young-looking officers to infiltrate high school crimes.

That is of course the concept rather than the plot; but the concept is really all that matters. Among its many faces, 21 Jump Street is a parody of and homage to the buddy cop genre, and the crime that Schmidt and Jenko investigate is noteworthy primarily for how much it resembles every story ever told in the 1980s. Now, if that's all the film had up it's sleeve, it wouldn't be worth talking about (for did not Hot Fuzz perfect the buddy cop comedy for at least a full generation?), and what's impressive here is that this is barely even a launching point; parody ends up being the very last thing on the film's mind, in point of fact, and it's the better for it.

As for what's first on its mind, there's a real question. The main thrust of the film ends up being how Schmidt and Jenko end up re-visiting high school, a mere seven years after graduating, to find it unrecognisable; the very fabric of jocks and rich kids at the top that not only informed their experience but also the '80s and '90s films that are the movie's real touchstone for "high school culture" - without saying it, the movie calls attention to the ubiquity of John Hughes's output as the template for how we think about adolescence, right before doing everything possible to subvert that template - has been turned into a magic new world where being concerned for the environment is the new gateway to social acceptance, and where the most powerful kids in school would sooner ostracise somebody for homophobia than make fun of the gay kid. It's rather impressive in a way I haven't quite figured out, that the film can be at once so obvious about its social commentary - unlike a lot of satires, there's really no missing the film's point - and still feel cunning and subtle about it; and then, too, it addresses not only the bigger question of how the 1980s became the 2010s by bits and pieces, but also the sucker-punch of being a 25-year-old just realising that while one is too young to be an adult, one is infinitely too old to be an adolescent - the film games this a bit by making 18-year-old Jenko look more like 1995 than 2005, but the point remains.

So it's a social satire? Well, no, because the script that Michael Bacall wrote from the story he put together with Hill (this has been, we are told, a passion project for Jonah Hill for quite some time now) is as eager to traffic in the customary Hillisms of dick jokes, drinking jokes, and slightly less filthy dick jokes as it is in questions of the lightning speed with which adolescent culture changes in the internet age, and then too, it spends almost as much time in the land of farce as either of those - a single moment of stupidity leads to them swapping cover identities, making the lunky jock into the nominal math and science whiz, and sending the pudgy introvert to mingle with cool kids, drama clubbers, and athletes. And by allowing the characters to sink into their cover stories too far to remember that they're actually twentysomething cops, it even manages to do the same parody/homage thing for vintage teen comedies that it does for vintage cop movies. That makes, if I'm counting right, five entirely different, if related, comic tones that are getting balanced here, and that's without even touching on the film's satiric approach to the very idea of pop culture remakes as a whole, beginning with the depressed admission that the Metro City PD has run out of ideas and is not just recycling concepts like a bunch of assholes, and ending with the expected Johnny Depp cameo that takes a considerably different form than I, at least, was anticipating.

It is, in short, a grab-bag with a little something for everyone, although the portion of everyone who dislikes dick jokes is going to have a much rougher go of it than the rest. The good news is that for the most part, it's all good - generally, it is better when it is less obvious (a bit where an angry black captain played by Ice Cube announces that he is well away of what a cliché it is to be an angry black captain clangs like the doorway to Hell, to me), and as one whose affection for Jonah Hill's Dick Joke Express didn't survive all the way to the end of Superbad, that flavor of comedy left me a bit chiller than the rest. But there's quite an edifying mix of the witty and the crude in the dialogue, sometimes both at once; and what is perhaps a little bit surprising is how well Hill and particularly Tatum hit their comic notes. Was it not just a month ago that The Vow reiterated how much of a leaden lump Channing Tatum is? And yet here we have him, nailing the hell out of a line like "I punched him, and then he turned out to be gay", and responding with the exact right degree of sub-clever slowness to Hill's bluster, and even managing to perfectly play scenes that aren't even scenes, like when we see him, out of focus in the background, cracking up at Hill praying to "Korean Jesus", in one of the tiniest and best pieces of comic acting in a long damn time. So, yay for Channing Tatum's hopeful future in comedy, and yay for 21 Jump Street for being exactly the right mixture of smart and appallingly dumb to showcase him and Jonah Hill, and for being, in the process, the most cutting and sly and at times utterly hilarious broad comedy in months, at least.

8/10

5 comments:

StephenM said...

OK, I thought this looked awful from the beginning, hated all the trailers, and was appalled when I saw its 80-something% RottenTomatoes score. But now, reading this, I think you've convinced me to check it out. SO you better not be leading me wrong, or watch out!

franklinshepard said...

I saw this last night, and definitely enjoyed myself. But Tim, are you planning on seeing/reviewing Friends With Kids? Jennifer Westfeldt always seems to take it on the chin with reviewers, but I have really enjoyed all three of her movies so far, and find them much more realistic and insightful than the usual rom-coms.

Tim said...

Stephen- Check back in when/if you see it, now I'm terrified that I've sent you wrong.

Franklin- It had not, honestly, been my intent. I didn't actively hate Kissing Jessica Stein, but I certainly didn't like it all that much.

Dayna said...

I for one thought Channing Tatum showed off some comic chops in She's the Man, but then, I am weirdly into Amanda Bynes.

Mike Gibson said...

Anybody want to do some throat fingering?