21 Jump Street movie review: the silly blue line

MaryAnn’s quick take: Fueled almost entirely by an appreciation of its own ridiculousness, balancing absurdity with smart truths and walking a fine tonal line to make us care about characters barely more than cartoons.
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Hoorah! I have another exhibit to point to when I am accused of being unfairly and irretrievably prejudiced against a movie before I even see it. Because, yeah, I fully expected to hate this new big-screen reboot of 80s TV show 21 Jump Street, and publicly stated as much, because I see no purpose in hiding my biases. (Just because some other critics don’t reveal their preconceptions about a movie doesn’t mean they don’t have them, too, you know.) The trailer presented so much apparent dumbing-down that it made my teeth ache. I cannot abide its stars, Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, whose stardoms are enormous mysteries to me. And I’m pretty damned tired of how Hollywood’s creative bankruptcy is taken so for granted that open acknowledgement of such — as when a beloved classic is dragged out and repurposed out of sheer laziness — is now deemed cause for celebration rather than despair.

And still, I enjoyed the heck out of 21 Jump Street. And I don’t mind stating that publicly, and without reservation, either. There’s an undercurrent to those “You just wanted to hate it!” accusations that always translates to me as “You know you loved it, but you just don’t want to admit it!” that I never understand: Why would I pretend to hate a movie that I actually like? What would be the point of that? There aren’t enough good movies in the world that I can afford to deny even a single one of them their rightful due.

This Jump Street is fueled almost entirely by an appreciation of its own ridiculousness, yet one that balances the absurdity with some smart truths. So it manages to walk a fine tonal line that few Hollywood films are able to, in making us care, at least a little, about characters who are little more than cartoons. It’s tough to be sensitive about the silly, but directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller — whose Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs managed it, too — pull it off. That alone is reason to cheer.

The snark starts right from the get-go, with a joke about recycling shit from the past and hoping that no one notices. (The sharp script, which is only a little bit idiotic in a few places, is by Jonah Hill, who may end up being far more appealing as a writer than as an actor, and Michael Bacall, the latter whom is also responsible for the appalling Project X. I can’t even. Something about the fine line between clever and stupid, I guess.) The recycled shit? An, ahem, old police-department program from the 80s that puts young-looking cops on undercover beats in high schools. Unlikely partners Jenko (Tatum: The Vow, Haywire), a very dumb jock, and brainiac nerd Schmidt (Hill: The Sitter, Moneyball) are assigned to this squad as a last stop before their sergeant will have to ask for their guns and badges, they’re that inept. The big extended “they’re that inept” joke is couched in the film’s first smart truth: that police work is often tedious and typically far less glamorous and exciting than TV and movies make it out to be.

Going back to high school turns out to be much more tedious and far less glamorous than it’s supposed to be, too. Oh my, but here is where Jump Street really shines: in thwarting the clichés of cinematic high school. It’s only been a few years since Jenko and Schmidt were on opposite sides of the cool spectrum at their own school, but they can’t even recognize the spectrum today, the definition of cool has changed so dramatically in just a few years. They can’t even identify some of the cliques that populate the halls. They don’t even know how to insult anyone anymore.

This is all very, very funny, and ends up making Jump Street one of the wisest movies about high school ever. And that’s even before it gets to all the wonderful discoveries about themselves that the guys make that they never could have expected. I don’t want to spoil those, but one of them makes me like Tatum a little more, for how he embraces something that will damage Jenko’s carefully cultivated dumb-jock image… and he doesn’t care. Tatum makes his enthusiam infectious.

Oh, gosh, and there’s also one of the funniest car chases I’ve ever seen. Which earns it a place among the most amusing cop movies ever.

Good stuff. I wasn’t expecting any of that. I’m glad I was wrong.

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