Thursday, August 9, 2012

21 Jump Street

Directors: Phil Lord and Chris Miller
Starring: Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Brie Larson, Dave Franco, Ellie Kemper, Rob Riggle, Ice Cube, Nick Offerman, Jake Johnson, Chris Parnell, Holly Robinson Peete, Johnny Depp
Running Time: 109 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

It's early on in 21 Jump Street when rookie officers and former high school classmates Morgan Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Greg Jenko (Channing Tatum) are drolly informed by Capt. Hardy (Parks and Rec's Nick Offerman) that they've been taken off bicycle park duty and reassigned to the recently resurrected "Jump Street" project. He then goes on a rant about how the department lacks creativity and must pathetically recycle their old programs because they've run out of ideas. It was right about there that I sensed this could work. But I couldn't have guessed it would rank amongst the very best recent mainstream comedies, sharing only its title and (briefly) Johnny Depp with the cheesy 1980's FOX cop drama. Gut-bustingly hysterical from start to finish, it's the rare comedy where everything works and the laughs are firing on all cylinders. Subversive and smart, it executes what's actually a very clever premise to its fullest potential and then some. Eyes may have rolled when this project was announced, but the result isn't what you'd think. Not only does it avoid the creative fate of so many failed TV to film adaptations like the The A-Team, Miami Vice or Starsky and Hutch, but it wouldn't surprise me if it shows up on more than a few top 10 lists at the end of the year. Including mine. It's that good, ingeniously merging both the cop buddy movie and high school comedy formula for maximum enjoyment.

Reporting to the Jump Street chapel, Schmidt and Jenko are informed by the hotheaded Captain Dickson (Ice Cube) that, due to their youthful appearances, they've been selected to go undercover at a local high school to infiltrate a drug ring that led to a student's death. Posing as brothers, their intended fake identities are accidentally switched, forcing them to take each others' classes. But when they discover the dealer is popular student Eric (Dave Franco), both must make it a priority to take him down, even as Schmidt's falling for the  Molly (Brie Larson), a pretty girl in his drama class who's also Eric's girlfriend. Jenko hangs out with the nerds in AP Chemistry as his sexually frustrated teacher (Ellie Kemper) tries to put the moves on him. Mesmerized by their chance to re-live high school and engulfed in its social hierarchy, they're often so distracted that they forget they have a drug supplier to find and a potentially dangerous case to crack in order to be taken seriously as cops.  

The movie's best comedic moments are situational and the clever script by Michael Bacall is surprisingly high concept in how it marks the huge difference for these two characters from the first time they went through high school way back in 2005. In an embarrassingly hilarious and endearing opening flashback sequence we see Schmidt, with hair bleached blond like Eminem, attempt (and fail) to ask a popular girl to the prom as dumb jock Jenko mocks him. Years later they're helping each other get through police training, but when they arrive to go undercover they can't help but wonder if they'll settle right back into their teen roles again, with Jenko as the popular jock and Schmidt the nerd. But here's where the film's really smart in its execution. From the second they arrive, it's clear things aren't what they used to be. Bullying is now a serious offense, the jocks aren't as high on the social ladder, and drama class is actually considered cool. The explanation given for all this: "Glee." And ironically it seems the very same overbearing, sincere qualities that initially made Schmidt a loser his first go-around around make him insanely popular in this new environment.

With their switched identities, both are forced to do things we wouldn't expect from either the characters or actors playing them, which create most of the laughs. Just the thought of seeing Channing Tatum (who classmates justifiably think is about 40) giving a chemistry presentation or Jonah Hill playing Peter Pan in a school production would be funny enough on its own, but because the story actually gives us a  reason for it, these scenes play even funnier than they should. Taking this role was the best move Tatum could have possibly made, erasing the stigma that he's wooden and uncharismatic. He's definitely the straight man to the noticeably slimmed-down Hill, but his comic timing is impeccable, showing range as an actor beyond what was assumed. Pairing him with Hill was a masterstroke precisely because of how different they are physically and otherwise. You wouldn't expect them to have great chemistry together but once they get going, it's such a home run that it seems crazy someone didn't think of teaming them sooner. Hill has the trickier role, having to play up his emerging popularity while still viewing himself as somewhat of a loser because of his history. He's especially effective when he gets a taste of that unfamiliar, previously unattainable respect and it goes straight to his head, causing him to get so involved in this world that he practically forgets he's undercover. And as he does, we do as well because directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller do such a good job depicting this environment and everyone's place in it.

Brie Larson's Molly doesn't feel like your typical love interest and a far better written character than we're used to seeing in a comedy like this. Her relationship with the popular Eric isn't really even much of a relationship at all and that's fully acknowledged, giving her a real presence and personality that exists outside of her being on a guy's arm. But the biggest credit to the maturity and wit Larson brings to the role is that we're genuinely rooting for Hill's character to win this girl over and laughing too hard to even consider the moral or legal ramifications of an undercover cop picking up a high school student. Granted we know the actress is older and it's a comedy, but that's still impressive and proves the directors and actors really have a airtight grip on tone, allowing nothing to get in the way and somehow sidestepping any creepiness (the same applies to the sub-plot with Tatum and his teacher). It also helps that many of Larson's dialogue exchanges with Hill are authentic and funny. Just based on her work here, she seems primed to travel a route similar to Emma Stone, receiving the same massive, well deserved bump that actress experienced starring opposite Hill in Superbad. The impression she makes is just as strong.

Dave Franco, James Franco's younger brother, looks and acts exactly how you'd expect Franco's little bro to look and act, which can't be viewed as anything but a compliment. It's almost inaccurate to call his character a bully since he's a new kind of bully: The wuss. Eric doesn't exactly fit the standard teen movie profile of a jock with a hot girlfriend, and he's only slightly unlikable, allowing Franco to do something a little different with what's usually a tired character. As strong as Hill and Tatum are as a tandem, it's hard to envision the film being of the same quality with actors other than Larson and Franco opposite them. Comedian Rob Riggle also manages to really bring the sleaze as a scumbag gym teacher.

It probably seems like I've given away too much, but in actuality it's nothing. The real joy is in watching this clever story out and witnessing the chaotic and hysterical scenes unfold. Whether it's a wild drug trip, Schmidt's house party gone bad, a high speed car chase, a school play gone very wrong, or the exciting prom night climax, the movie rarely steps wrong and is consistently funny all the way through. And as for the expertly placed Depp cameo, he comes off more entertaining and energized during these brief moments on screen than he was on the original show that launched his career, and probably most of his recent movies. But this is Hill and Tatum's show. They own it, together comprising one of the more unusual and likable comic duos in a long time. Supposedly, the wheels are already in motion for a 21 Jump Street sequel, and if this film's quality is any indication of what's in store, it can't arrive soon enough.

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