erik lundegaard

21 Jump Street
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21 Jump Street (2012)

WARNING: SPOILERS

“21 Jump Street” is the kind of movie that garners an 87% rating on RottenTomatoes.com because 87% of movie critics, most of whom are guys, think it’s pretty good. Hey, it’s kinda funny. It’s got funny bits here and there. I laughed. As did I. But nobody’s overwhelmed. Most everyone knows it’s a not-bad bromedy, another light comedy with tons of dick jokes, that doesn’t really go anywhere. The only one that sounds enthused, really, is that 87% rating on RottenTomatoes.com.

Its humor is scattershot. It’s best when it’s aping its genre—the same way that “The Other Guys” was best when it was aping its genre—but eventually it gives in to the genre’s demands. All mainstream satires do. It’s Hollywood eating its cake and having it, too. It’s the movie business spending 45 minutes telling us, “Oh, you’re too smart for this,” and then telling us, for another 45 minutes, “OK, you’re not.”

It’s right both times.

Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum, in his third movie this year) are recent Police Academy grads on bike patrol who long for something better. After a bust of a drug gang, the One Percenters, goes awry, they’re scuttled off to another unit. “Where do we report to?” Jenko asks. “Down on Jump Street,” Deputy Chief Hardy (Nick Offerman) declares melodramatically from behind his desk. “37 Jump Street.” Pause. “Wait, that doesn’t sound right.”

Hardy gets in another good line. Since the squad is a revival of an undercover program from the 1980s, he adds, “All they do now is recycle shit from the past and expect us not to notice.” A few people in the crowd at Pacific Place in downtown Seattle laughed knowingly at that one. For a few minutes, we hold out hope.

We get a few more of these in-jokes, these “You’re too smart for this” lines and moments. I suppose my favorite is when our boys are being chased on the LA freeway by a motorcycle gang, and, one by one, gang members crash into things like, you know, trucks full of gas canisters, or they slide, sparks flying, into a leaking oil and gas tanker, and Schmidt and Jenko tense, anticipating the ensuing explosion. But nothing happens. They’re constantly amazed that nothing blows up. Until the very end when almost everything does. That’s the “OK, you’re not” part.

(Why, by the way, do cinematic explosions appeal to the Big Jim McBobs and Billy Sol Huroks of the world? Does anyone know? I get nothing out of it.)

The “Jump Street” squad—for those unfamiliar with the ’80s TV series that propelled Johnny Depp to fame—uses baby-faced cops to infiltrate high schools where drugs are being sold and crimes committed. More in-jokes here, since Tatum, 32 in April, hardly seems credible as a high school student. Hill, 28, is a bit better. And it helps, of course, that the other high schoolers are also played by twentysomethings: Dave Franco, 26, plays Eric, the popular kid who’s dealing the drugs, while Brie Larson, 22, plays his kinda girlfriend, Molley Tracey, who winds up with the hots for Schmidt. Yes, Schmidt.

That’s another ongoing gag. Way back in 2005, both of these guys were seniors in high school, where Jenko was the stupid popular jock and Schmidt was the Eminem-loving, unpopular nerd, who was the sole member of the Juggling Society (“One man, three balls.”) Apparently times have changed. Today’s kids, besides texting instead of phoning, and putting up party invites on something called “Facebook,” appreciate the following: reading comic books; environmental awareness; being tolerant. They don’t like bullies. Schmidt prospers and hangs with the cool kids; Jenko is ostracized and hangs with the science geeks.

But shouldn’t the science geeks...?

Never mind.

I like a line of Schmidt’s early on, when he realizes his path away from high school has led him back to high school: “It was too fucking hard the first time,” he says, shaking his head. Most people can identify.

Part of the point of the film is that, no matter your age, no matter your maturity level, when you return to high school you become as childish as you were in high school. I like that concept ... but Schmidt and Jenko are never mature. They never stop being childish. They’re doing drugs as bike cops. They’re shooting guns in the air in city parks. It doesn’t take high school to turn them into adolescents, they’re already there. Would it have worked better if our heroes had been mature when they first arrived? Or would it have just cut back on the comedy.

Many of the original “21 Jump Street” stars get their cameos, including one hilarious shocker, and we get the usual hip comedy alums, such as Rob Riggle of “The Daily Show” and Ellie Kemper of “The Office” as a teacher with the hots for Jenko. The movie has its share of laughs. But that sound you hear throughout is the sound of cake eating itself.

—March 17, 2012

© 2012 Erik Lundegaard