Thursday, March 15, 2012

An unlikely (but funny) return to high school

I can't imagine that the world's population has been trembling with anticipation at thought of a 21 Jump Street movie. Who among us spends significant time yearning to revisit '80s television, even with a series that spawned Johnny Depp's mega-career? Beyond that, the idea of undercover cops re-enrolling in high school to smash a drug ring doesn't pulsate with originality. And who wants to return to high school under any circumstances?

All this by way of saying that the big-screen rendition of 21 Jump Street should have been a notable dud rather than an amusing (if intentionally silly) attempt to cast a parodic spell over a TV show that took itself fairly seriously.

21 Jump Street teams Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum as screw-up police officers who are assigned to a unit that investigates youth crime and which is run by a scowling police captain played by Ice Cube .

You can tell that the movie is more interested in comedy than credibility because Hill and Tatum -- in defiance of the imperatives of any known gene pool -- try to pass themselves off as brothers once they're assigned to a school.

Directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs) have one exceptionally smart trick up their sleeves. The script, based on a story by Hill and screenwriter Michael Bacall, flips the script on Hill and Tatum. Hill's Schmidt, a scorned nerd in high school, discovers that he actually fits into the the politically sensitive school environment of the 21st century. Suddenly, he's cool. Tatum's Jenko, a much-admired jock when he attended the high school, seems like a dumb oaf when seen through an updated contemporary lens. He gets roped into going to band practice, and is forced to figure out a way to fake his way through advanced chemistry.

Hill has plenty of comic experience, but Tatum -- usually cast as a gooey-eyed hunk in movies such as The Vow -- handles his comic assignment with surprising aplomb, playing a character who can be dumb and dumber all by himself.

Beyond that, Hill and Tatum work well enough together to keep the movie from tumbling into the usual garbage heap of crude, intentionally stupid humor. Their growing bromance seems heartfelt, encouragement that it's possible to outgrow high school prejudices.

The supporting cast includes Brie Larson, as a high school drama student who thinks Schmidt's cool, and Dave Franco, brother of James Franco, as a high-school wheeler-dealer, who traffics in a drug that's supposed to break new ground in hallucinogenic experience.

I could have done without the movie's noisy attempts at action, which include a mind-numbing car chase, and not all of the jokes connect, but 21 Jump Street is the kind of movie that's best summed up by the collective sigh of relief it seems to have engendered from the critical community. And in fairness, it should be noted that the primary audience for a movie such as this probably will be ready and willing to forgive a few wrong turns.

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