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21 Jump Street No Classic, But Definitely Funny

21 Jump Street
Directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller
Written by Michael Bacall from a story by Bacall and Jonah Hill based on the TV series by Patrick Hasburgh and Stephen J. Cannell
Sony, 2012

21 Jump Street gave the country slightly more awareness of Johnny Depp during its run from 1987-1991, a decent hit for then-struggling Fox in the days of Married with Children, The Tracey Ullman Show, and later, In Living Color andThe Simpsons.  It was an undercover police drama, so of course now that it’s getting adapted in 2012 it becomes a knowing comedy courtesy of Michael Bacall and star Jonah Hill.  Bacall co-wrote Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World and the party comedy from a couple of weeks ago, Project X.

What Hill and Bacall have done to the story is take it to the Apatow era and ramp up the f-bombs from zero to 100 and make it a mismatched buddy comedy.  And man is this ever a mismatch: Hill teams with Step Up and Nicholas Sparks-world Channing Tatum, who has only been good in movies that people didn’t see.  What’s surprising is that these guys are awesome together.

Schmidt (Hill) and Jenko (Tatum) were once opposite ends of the spectrum in high school together–Schmidt was the nerdy guy awkward around girls, and Jenko was the jock with bad grades.  Both hated high school for different reasons.  Now fast forward 7 years later, they’re in the same class at the police academy, and they graduate to become…bike cops.  Their bike cop career takes a hit when they try to make an arrest without reading the perp his rights, so they are sent to do undercover work under Captain Dickson (Ice Cube).  They’re sent to 21 Jump Street, the address of a high school where a new drug is finding its way to the impressionable YouTube generation.

Schmidt and Jenko are now to play brothers, living under Schmidt’s parents’ roof, and all they have to do is get in good with the dealers and find the supplier.  Due to the fact that Jenko wants to be “Brad” instead of “Doug,” in front of the school principal, the less cerebral of the two will be taking AP courses with the nerds while the smarter guy ends up in drama and “normal” classes.  On the first day, they quickly run into one of the dealers, Eric (Dave Franco, James’ brother), and it’s not too long before they’re buying the new drug from him and tripping their balls off in front of P.E. teacher Mr. Walters (Rob Riggle).

But finding the supplier is tough, and these guys start to get “in too deep” with their second chance at high school, with Jenko finding a comfort zone with the nerds, who are helping him learn stuff, and Schmidt finally getting to see what it’s like to be cool and to be liked by a cute girl (Brie Larson).  It’s not long before Eric wants Schmidt to be a dealer.  But as always, the clock is ticking on making an arrest, as the other undercover police in the Dickson outfit are making their simple arrests and making them look bad.

There are numerous funny moments, and numerous that fall flat.  Channing Tatum’s tripping while trying to explain some sort of scientific process with movie references, capped by a hilarious, “Fuck you, science!” is a highlight.  In fact, Tatum might very well own this movie.  Hill gets some moments, obviously, but we’re seeing Tatum in a completely different role here and it’s funny to see him away from the Nicholas Sparks and dumb meatball turns we’ve come to expect.

I have a feeling this could have been a lot better though, approaching greatness.  Perhaps it’s Bacall’s involvement that sparked this thought, but it seems like if Edgar Wright could have been behind the camera on this, it would have been a lot funnier.  Lord and Miller made the animated hit Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, which in a small way puts them in that Brad Bird/Andrew Stanton class of animation directors who are shooting a live action picture for the first time, but this is only their second film, and the staging of some of the comedy could use a little work.  Whether it’s the script or the direction, there are a bunch of themes they could have mined for laughs.  I think it’s funny that “in too deep” here means the trappings of high school and not drugs, but it would have been fun to see one of the characters get addicted to the stuff and take the movie into darker territory.  I also wonder what kind of dark comedic turn this would have taken with Jody Hill (Observe & Report) behind the camera, but the box office might have been bleak.

But forget the possibly darker version of this movie that could have been, it’s a funny movie and well worth the time.  I get the feeling that watching it with a sold-out crowd will be awesome.

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