21 Jump Street (2012) – Phil Lord, Chris Miller

I am in the middle of watching the wonderful 1979 mini-series version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy starring Alec Guinness and produced by the BBC. It is beautifully imagined, ecquisitely acted and realized and terribly confusing. Seen between episodes 4 and 5, when things are their most contentious and most unexplained, 21 Jump Street, which does not contain a single mystery, piece of intrigue or complex thought, is just what the doctor ordered. Now, I’m not saying that 21 Jump Street is better than Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, or the 2011 film version, or even the nursery rhyme “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor” but I do know that it was stupid and I was in the mood for it.

So is this a positive review? I don’t know. 21 Jump Street is not a good movie. It’s not nearly funny enough, it’s dreadfully predictable, and it has more than a few moments that fall flat as an iron. It is, of course, the reboot to the ‘80s TV drama starring Johnny Depp about cops that go undercover in a high school. In 2012 it’s reimagined as a comedy and gives us the dumb jock Jenko (Channing Tatum) and the smart nerd who is just as dumb Schmidt (Jonah Hill), who are sent to the Jump Street unit because of their inability to make it as street cops and because they look young. Their unit is overseen by Dickson (Ice Cube) who informs Jenko and Schmidt that a new synthetic drug has been spreading around the local high school and is killing kids. They are to infiltrate the student body and discover the dealers and suppliers. Jenko, who was a big man on campus when he went through high school the first time is looking forward to another chance to be popular and Schmidt is dreading it based on his four years of alienation, anxiety and unacceptance. Much to both of their surprises, their social roles are reversed as Schmidt’s earnest and amiable demanor is a bigger hit than Jenko’s tough machoismo. Schmidt gets in with the popular kid (Dave Franco) who is also connected to the drug ring but he disregards the case, his friendship with Jenko and the interest of the pretty Molly (Brie Larson) for the intoxication of being thought of as cool by teenagers. All the pieces come together on prom night naturally and we wonder if Jenko and Schmidt can mend their bond, catch the bad guys, and save the girl. It’s not a spoiler; they can.

The best parts of 21 Jump Street are the sly digs the movie makes about cops and cop movies. There’s a particularly funny sequence that plays with our expectations about chases and explosions. Hill gets most of the big laughs and Tatum is a fine straight man though he doesn’t sell stupid as well as he should (I’m not sure if that’s an insult). Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller have a lot of material for a comedy but never let it drag but they also don’t create something that stays with you either. This is pure dumb comedy, the kind of movie that has to be qualified by “Well, it’s March, what else was I going to go see?” It does avoid insulting the viewer too badly but it’s a far cry from enriching his life either. The only time my pesky brain insisted on interjecting was during a sequence when the two cops are exposed to the drug and try hard to conceal its effects around their teachers and fellow students. On its own, it’s a pretty funny sequence and well set-up as we were prepped on the stages of the drug beforehand via a youtube clip the cops watch made by a student who was high. As they progress through each stage, Jenko and Schmidt are confronted with a scenario that either is antithema to their current state or tailormade for it. It would be hilarious except for that the kid in the youtube clip died and the drug has been killing kids throughout the school. Fake drug or not, the sequence is making light of that. It’s a comedy, the plot is just a placeholder anyway, the drug doesn’t need to be killing children.

The authority members around Tatum and Hill are filled by cameos of today’s secondary TV stars, there’s Nick Offerman from “Parks and Recreation” as the police chief, “The New Girl’s” Jake Johnson as the high school principle, Ellie Kemper from “The Office” and Chris Parnell from “30 Rock” as teachers. There is one cameo by a movie star, but I don’t dare reveal it. I do not, however, mind telling you that somebody tries to pick their own penis up from the ground using their mouth. Perhaps I shouldn’t have told you that but Lord and Miller definitely shouldn’t have included it in their movie.  There have been a number of times that I’ve watched a comedy that tickled me in the moment but when I rewatch it later I ask myself what I was thinking the first time. I have a hunch 21 Jump Street is like that, though I have no interest in seeing it again to find out.

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