Thursday, March 22, 2012

21 Jump Street

Karl Marx said history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce. TV shows seem to be doing the same. Judging by the trailer, Tim Burton’s upcoming fang-in-cheek remake of Dark Shadows looks to be spoofing subtexts that the campily self-serious original didn’t even know it had. And 21 Jump Street, a cheerful goof of a movie, treats a mediocre ‘80s series best known for launching Johnny Depp’s career like an empty tote bag, stuffing it full of little riffs on pop culture clich├ęs, many of which have nothing to do with the original show.

The TV show had some early stirrings of the self-mocking humor that’s hard-wired into us these days, as Depp and his fellow young cops struggled to learn the skills they would need to fit into the high schools and colleges where they worked undercover. But its dominant tone was earnest—early episodes were sometimes followed by a PSA about the social problem the show had just addressed—and its main appeal was the vicarious thrill of watching Depp and crew deal with hot-off-the-presses social issues while squaring off against gang bangers, bikers, gruff mentor cops, and assorted other tough guys.

The movie strips off all the moralizing and heads straight for the obsession with image—what‘s cool and what’s not, what it takes to fit in or stand out—that was the core of the original. Schmidt (Jonah Hill) is a nerd who teams up with his high school nemesis, cool-guy jock Jenko (Channing Tatum) in police training school seven years after they’ve graduated. Too incompetent to perform on a regular beat and still young enough to pass for teenagers (well, sort of—Tatum’s obvious physical maturity is a running joke), the two get assigned to infiltrate a high school disguised as students to find out who’s supplying the kids with a deadly new party drug.

That launches a slew of good-natured sight gags and set pieces about how high school culture has changed since Schmidt and Jenko graduated. Jenko’s trusty rules about how to be cool are shredded by baffling phenomena like the Berkeley-bound, eco-conscious drug dealer who rules the school (played by James Franco’s lookalike little brother, Dave) and the ascendant science nerds who, while maybe not any cooler than they were in his day, certainly wield a lot more power and command more respect. When the two cops switch identities (not on purpose—they’re just that bad at their jobs), Schmidt is forced to enter school as the cool-guy jock and Jenko as the brainiac introvert, making this new turf that much harder for them to negotiate.

But writer Michael Bacall (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) and co-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs) don’t stop there. They milk laughs from stereotypes like the gay subtext in buddy movies, the obligatory explosions in action movies, and the way cool guys roll over the hoods of moving cars in the movies. The laughs aren’t big, but they’re regular—and often self-referential, like when Schmidt and Jenko’s first boss sneers at the Jump Street assignment he gives them, calling it a retread of an ‘80s program dictated by unimaginative higher-ups who just “recycle this shit from the past and expect us not to notice.”

The silly is sold by a cast of crack comic actors best known for their work on TV, including ex-Daily Show regular Rob Riggle, Ellie Kemper from The Office, Parks and Recreation's Nick Offerman, and Chris Parnell of Suburgatory and 30 Rock. Tatum fits right in, finding the funny in the machismo-with-hints-of-soulful-vulnerability that is usually all he’s asked to portray. Like his character, he turns out to be a lot more interesting than most of us had assumed.

Ice Cube also gets to show off a new side—not that there was ever any doubt that he can do just about anything—as the perpetually angry officer who runs the undercover program. Listening to his pissed-off ‘80s NWA persona sing Fuck da Police on the soundtrack underlines the absurdity of seeing him play an equally enraged cop onscreen, which was pretty funny to begin with. “I know what you’re thinking,” he barks at his recruits. “Angry black captain: It ain’t nothin’ but a stupid stereotype.”

And that’s how 21 Jump Street rolls, throwing out a flurry of jokes and sight gags and ironic asides like foam balls tossed into a pit. It may not seem like much at first, but before we know it we’re inside a big bounce house of humor, having a good old time.

Written for TimeOff

1 comment:

  1. Feels like it's doing something new with the teen genre, while still acknowledging its debt to the classics that came before it.