Saturday, March 31, 2012

21 Jump Street ★★★

As Funny As You’ve Heard

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

By now we’ve all heard - either from friends, family members or yes, even critics - that the new film 21 Jump Street is much funnier than anyone expected it to be. As if that wasn’t enough, it’s a modern day comedy that actually works. I was never a fan of the original series simply because I had not heard about it until well after Johnny Depp had been established as a credible actor. The premise of the original series was simple enough: young looking undercover police officers were sent to high school posing as students to investigate drug trafficking abuse. The new film follows that same basic concept, albeit with a more self-reflexive comical take.

We’re introduced in 2005 to Schmidt and Jenko, two high school students who could not be more different. Schmidt (Jonah Hill) is the Eminem-looking, brace-wearing nerd who cannot seem to find the courage to ask the woman he has a crush on to prom. Jenko (Channing Tatum) is the dimwitted jock whose grades are so low that he’s prevented from attending prom. The film then cuts to present day where both Schmidt and Jenko are in the police academy; Schmidt acing all of the written exams and failing all of the physical ones, and Jenko the exact opposite. The two become friends and help each other out, graduating shortly thereafter. When they make their first arrest however, they forget to read the drug dealer his Miranda Rights and he is released. Schmidt and Jenko are then transferred to Jump Street, where they are given their undercover assignment to infiltrate their local high school and find the dealer and supplier of a new synthetic drug that is causing students’ deaths. Sounds hilarious, right? Well, it is.

This comical approach to the original series works on a variety of levels; the first of which is that the film continues to make fun of the fact that it is remaking and continuing an old story that didn’t really work in the first place. Lets be honest, in most films the actors playing the part of teenagers never really look like teenagers. Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill really don’t really look like teenagers and the film points that out in virtually every scene. Additionally, it’s very much a fish-out-of-water tale, in that Schmidt and Jenko cannot even remember their cover stories, which leads to a mix-up of who’s who. Jenko is thus given all of the advanced classes including AP Chemistry and Schmidt is given the physical education and drama classes. It is at this point that we begin to see the true charm of the film. Most of us have always longed for the opportunity to relive our high school days as the popular kid. We want that recognition - that notoriety that we were cool and just didn’t know it. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe no one feels that way. Whether you were the popular kid or the nerdy kid like I was, you are nevertheless emotionally involved in Schmidt’s rise to popularity. You cannot help but cheer him on. He lands the lead part of Peter Pan in the school play, meets and falls in love with Molly (played by the delightful Brie Larson), a student in his drama class that happens to be playing the part of Wendy. He then makes it in with the “cool kids”, the leader of which, Eric (Dave Franco) happens to be the drug dealer they’re looking for.

The comedy, I would argue, really comes out of Jenko’s story. Jenko, not knowing anything about chemistry at all, is forced to study with the “nerdy” kids and is really out of his element for most of the film. Everything he knew from his 2005 senior year in high school has been thrown out of the window. Every time he tries to do something “cool” it only makes him come across as more desperate and. I have long been a proponent of Channing Tatum. There are roles that he is quite good in and roles that I wish he could have removed from his resume (The Vow, anyone? Bueller?). Tatum displays (and always has in my opinion) a true sense of comedic timing. He knows he looks like a semi intelligent jock and is not afraid to make fun of himself. His reactions to his partner, his attempts at being cool and his overall likeability display such true comedy. Make no mistake; Tatum has the acting chops necessary to pull of a film like this.

The other element to this film is the drug humor. For the most part, in recent years, this has been something that is over done and, for my money, ineffective. Like almost everything else in this film, it works, too. There are actual hyper-stylized title cards that explain each of the various stages of the drug’s effects, exemplified of course by Schmidt and Jenko when they are forced to try some to make sure they’re (wait for it) “cool”.

By not taking itself seriously, the film achieves what so many before it have failed to do. It’s established itself as a good buddy-cop film with a modern day take on a less-than-compelling story. It’s only pitfall is toward the end when, after poking fun at the fact that these two thought the job would have a lot more explosions, there are a lot more explosions. It becomes action movie cliché to a point, before finally ending on the hint of a sequel note.

Whoever you were or wanted to be in high school, 21 Jump Street has something for everyone, especially, but not limited to, a nerdy guy like me.