21 Jump Street Review

Of all the young actors vying for leading man status these days, one might have expected it from Channing Tatum the least. In his prior outings, he’s had all the charisma of a talking sandwich, but in 21 Jump Street, he actually opens up quite nicely, making even more of an impression than many more seasoned comedic actors. As a result, he anchors a film that doesn’t seem to know where its next laugh is coming from, but finds them more often than it doesn’t.

The premise of 21 Jump Street may be unfamiliar to most of this film’s target audience (author’s admission: it was unfamiliar to me before this film’s trailer came out), but as ironically noted here, it doesn’t really matter. Early on, Nick Offerman’s police chief states that ideas from the 1980s are regularly recycled in the hope that people won’t notice with a metatextual glee usually reserved for Looney Tunes. In short, it’s a masculine Never Been Kissed, with one lead getting the fabled do-over, and another finding out just how much has changed in a short seven years.

For Jonah Hill, a return to high school is a return to Superbad, a fact that this film’s buddy dynamics never seem unaware of. In the last five years, Hill’s schtick has modulated itself considerably, lowering the volume and scaling back aggression nearly to Michael Cera-levels. It plays believably off of Tatum’s meat-headed jock, who peaked in high school and never had the brains to do anything else with his life. Like any number of people for whom adolescence was all too easy, he’s cruel but never purposefully so. His reversal from subjugating Hill to fraternizing with him is believably instantaneous.

The background is filled with any number of familiar faces, from Ice Cube (his transition into middle-brow comedy star complete) to Ellie Kemper (Bridesmaids and The Office) to Rob Riggle (just about everything, it seems). The thing is that all of these people are recognizably comedy stars, and from the moment they step onto the screen, all you can do is to wait for them to say something ridiculous. Generally, that includes Hill, whose expressive eyes suggest anger and horror with half the work it would take almost anyone else. Tatum, however, never betrays an easy laugh or struggles to keep a straight face. He’s always on his game.

There’s been an odd trend on the rise lately of dramatic actors taking comedic roles, at the very least on internet videos (Funny Or Die is loaded with them). Though there was some precedent in the comedies of Cary Grant, it used to be anathema for ‘serious’ actors to let themselves be seen as ridiculous, and while nobody ever thought of Tatum as serious, it’d be hard to think of anyone more humorless. The dam seemed to break in Tropic Thunder, when Tom Cruise and Robert Downey Jr. so thoroughly outshined Ben Stiller and Jack Black that the Oscars stepped in. While the Apatowization of film comedy seems to favor improvisers, there’s also plenty of room for the dry one-liner, which a more dramatic personality could deliver better than Riggle probably ever could.

That sense of grounding helps immeasurably as the film searches far and wide for a coherent sense of humor, but never settles on anything long enough to set any kind of precedent. The Apatow long takes are here, but when necessary, the film also veers into bizarre, Harold and Kumar territory before finally exploding in a display of vulgarity unlike anything yet seen in a mainstream film. Most of it works, even when going for the obvious gags, but a little consistency might have created a stronger impression, or opened up more possibilities for a sequel.

"21 Jump Street" opens March 16, 2012 and is rated R. Comedy. Directed by Chris Miller, Phil Lord. Written by Michael Bacall. Starring Channing Tatum, Dave Franco, Ice Cube, Jonah Hill, Rob Riggle, Brie Larson, Deray Davis.

Anders Nelson • Associate Editor


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