Friday, 6 April 2012

Let’s Hear it for the Boys

21 Jump Street: directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller; written by Michael Bacall and Jonah Hill

21 Jump Street is a film which depends on familiar beats. What makes it even more interesting to me, though, is the way it emerges as something of hodgepodge depending on a slew of different genre hooks. At the most obvious level the film is caught somewhere between high school comedy and work place drama, and within that it’s part of that genre of adults heading back to high school while also being a cop comedy and a buddy comedy and amidst all that a spoof on pop culture – sort of. It’s to its credit, then, that at its finest moments 21 Jump Street is so honest and forthcoming with its humour that it manages to work. This is despite a slew of plot developments that make little sense both in and out of the film’s unrealistic world and in that way – and with a high school at its main playing ground 21 Jump Street (and this, too, is perhaps deliberate) seems like a nostalgic romp, but the nostalgia which it recalls is the not too distant nineties where film gaffes made little literal sense but still made for warm refreshing experiences.
(And I guess I too am making little sense by having my opening paragraph be something of a conclusion. Tsk.)

Morton and Greg went to high-school together. The latter was the geek, the former was the nerd. They didn’t interact much. Somehow they both end up at the Police Academy, which immediately makes me raise eyebrows. We don’t see much of Schmidt taking actual classes, but he’s smart and he even mentions (whilst in his highschool get-up) that he could apply to Berkley and get in, which of course begs the question why he wants to be a police officer since the question isn’t specifically addressed by the narrative, but I digress. Morton is the brain, Greg is the brawn and together they try and fail to carry out their first arrest. Their youthful looks (another gaffe because although Tatum and Hill don’t look old they look older than the fellow “youthful” cops on 21 Jump Street and much older than the high school students) lands them in a peculiar department where the police infiltrate high school as students to solve crimes. A new synthetic drug leads to a student’s death and the two are put on the case.
Now, of course, one would wonder why such a significant crime is put under the purview of these two rookies. But, allow them their movie conceits. Naturally, crazy things happen, the two infiltrate high school but things don’t go as planned, but then of course they sort of do. The very best thing about 21 Jump Street is the excellent chemistry between Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum. Both of them are actors I don’t dislike, but don’t care for and Tatum in particularly seemed destined to a life of unremarkable turns in less remarkable films and it’s to both their credits that their moments together land so well, even though in the grander scheme of things it’s so obviously Tatum > Hill. For me at least. So many of the film’s most authentic comedic moments depend on his ability to breathe surprising life into the concept of the dumb but pretty boy. One of my favourite throwaway gags is his response to a science experiment with the nerds in the school.

For all the genres it dabbles in, the film is – for the most part – keenly aware of the story it’s telling. The running gag of the stages off the drug precipitates is used excellently throughout. The appearances form Nick Offerman, Ice-Cube, Ellie Kemper, Johnny Depp and Johnny Simmon (the latter two almost walk off with the film in their single scenes) are all used so well in a way that makes me want to cheer the directors and writers for doing something recent films of this ilk don’t seem capable of doing – handling their cast well. Because, this is an actors’ movie – not in the traditional sense, but even though it’s a comedy the gags emerge from the actors’ cadences and not from the script’s conceits.
And, of course there are some dynamics which are…odd. Like, Tatum being the pretty one gets no “love” interest in high school but for a random wanton, drunk woman during the film’s finest chase out who seems to pop up from nowhere and is then discarded on the road corner. (No, she really is, I’m not exaggerating.) And Brie Larson, the second best in show to Tatum, is so excellent and then relegated to plot device in the final act so it’s a bit jarring. And, moreover, like any nineties flick the payoff for our heroes ends up being a bit garish because of the overzealous earnestness with which it is served up. But, really, it doesn’t bother me much. I laughed, I laughed loud and I laughed long and hard even as I rolled me eyes at its silliness. And, that’s all right.

This Is Nice, Isn’t It? / B-


Nick Prigge said...

Wow. Interesting, nicely written review. I'm confused now. Perhaps I should see this?

Also, upon seeing this film, do you think maybe the secret to Jonah Hill is that he needs to be part of a duo? Him and Brad. Him and Tatum.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

nick i know, i cracked. it's surprisingly fun and funny and it'll be a watershed moment for tatum if he chooses wisely hereafter. maybe you're on to something with hill, and i have to give him credit because he apparently was behind much of the film's development, so he's using his fame (? is he really famous? i feel like i've seen him on 2 movies) for good.