21 Jump Street: Rude Fun at Fantasy High

Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum play undercover cops in this smart spoof of both the old TV show and every high-school movie ever

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Scott Garfield / Columbia Pictures

Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum

I must have gone to the wrong high school. Mine lacked thugs-in-training, flirtatious teachers and warring cliques more ferocious than the Crips and the Bloods. I don’t recall any ritual humiliations — you know, jocks thumping some shy nerd against a locker. Our school was in what might have been called a rough neighborhood, but we weren’t preyed on by taunting townies. And though some of the kids had started to drink, nobody pushed dope in the study hall. The place was less like The Blackboard Jungle‘s North Manual High, more like the sedate Hailsham in Never Let Me Go.

Watching high-school movies — almost any high-school movie, from Porky’s through the John Hughes oeuvre to the genre’s current apotheosis and parody, 21 Jump Street — makes me wish that student unrest had been part of the curriculum at old St. Joe’s, or at least an extracurricular activity. That way, I could see the tropes in these films as sweet or painful personal flashbacks, rather than cinematic conventions as remote from my experience as a Western gunfight or a Martian romance. As it is, though, every teen movie looks to me as if it were set in a school called Fantasy High, where the students are all in their mid-20s or older. They must have been left back about 11 times.

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One of the appeals of 21 Jump Street — a rough comic makeover of the 1987 Stephen J. Cannell TV series about young cops working undercover in high schools, and whose only justification was that it starred Johnny Depp in his showbiz infancy— is that it tilts some of the clichés in the general direction of my rosy memories. The girls are nice and the boys are good looking at Sagan High, which two raw Officers  — the dumb jock Jenko (Channing Tatum) and the clever misfit Schmidt (Jonah Hill) — have just infiltrated to bust a suspected drug lord. Yet the school seems like Eden, with studious and socially enlightened kids. “Environmental awareness, being tolerant,” Schmidt says in wonder. “If only I’d been born 10 years later!” Meaning he wouldn’t have got beat up so frequently.

Of course the students’ liberal maturity is a joke too: one of them, pretty-boy Eric (Dave Franco, younger brother of actor James but a visual sibling to Tom Cruise, or maybe the grandson of Montgomery Clift), is peddling a hellacious hallucinogen known as HFS. Who’s the ringmaster? That mild mystery is the only engine of narrative propulsion in the waywardly witty screenplay by teen-film specialist Michael Bacall. Instead of a comic-book rewrite (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) or a found-footage version of American Pie (Project X), Bacall tackles the umpteenth revival of a minor old TV series. Hill, a producer and cowriter of the picture, takes a protective preemptive strike at the audience who’s seen all this a hundred times before by anticipating its restlessness and saying, “All they do is recycle sh-t from the past… and expect us not to notice.”

The trick of a genre parody is to set low expectations and then exceed them. That can be considered a breakthrough in a movie age when originality is measured by how many twists can be made within a straitjacket format. So 21 Jump Street gets points for simultaneously inhabiting two over-familiar genres: the high-school film and the buddy-cop comedy. Enemies back in their own school days, Schmidt and Jenko are forced together when they meet as police recruits. Jenko, whose mastery of the Miranda law is a little thin (“You have the right to remain an attorney…”), is discouraged to find that cop school is kind of like high school. “I really thought this would have more car chases and explosions,” he says, “and less homework.” Schmidt has the same feeling: on his first attempted bust he is injured in the line of duty — an elbow burn. It’s like an on-the-job wedgie.

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Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, old Dartmouth classmates from the ’90s, previously did the animated feature Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. Without much fanfare, they managed to make the movie to live-action films with a tad more insouciance than Brad Bird (The IncrediblesRatatouille) brought to Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol and a lot less strenuously than Andrew Stanton (Finding NemoWALL·E) in last week’s John Carter. Lord and Miller get the two stars’ camaraderie clicking, and draw twinkly performances from ingenue Brie Larson (who manages to channel Shirley MacLaine and Renee Zellweger in their blooming phases) and Ellie Kemper (Bridesmaids) as a teacher hot for Jenko.

An alumnus of Judd Apatow High, Hill applies a few lessons that no comedy maven need learn: the movie runs closer to two hours than to the ideal running time of 90 mins.; it includes the needless Act 3 in an Apatovian bromance, in which the two guys have to break up so they can make up; and it; and it ends with the requisite gross-out joke — the well-I’ve-never-seen-that-before sight gag, meant to secure appalled-delighted word-of-mouth. In fact, the project loses traction toward the end, as the picture strains to become a full-blooded action film — the very thing it spends the rest of its time mocking.

And yet 21 Jump Street earns my genial nod because of its limber, 120-IQ take on the whole notion of movie revivals. As Schmidt and Jenko’s angry supervisor (Ice Cube) commands, “Embrace your stereotypes.” They’re not my stereotypes, but for a while they had me thinking I should have matriculated at Fantasy High.

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