By now I’ve resigned myself to the Judd Apatow school of comedy. With the new “American Pie” and upcoming Adam Sandler vehicle (can you call his films “vehicles” anymore?) “That’s My Boy,” crass humor and middle-class hijinks are here to stay. That’s fine with me, provided we have the occasional “Superbad” or “Bridesmaids” to compensate for the dreck.
“21 Jump Street” does not belong to that top tier. It’s too inconsistent and weighed down by the usual suspects — a by-numbers action climax, schizophrenic screenplay and exploitation for its own sake instead of comedy — but sometimes there’s a glimpse of brilliance that elevates the whole affair above its lowbrow trappings. That’s startling for an adaption of an ‘80s TV series, mostly known for launching Johnny Depp’s career.
Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) have graduated police academy, largely with each other’s help. Though they occupied opposite ends of the social strata in high school — Schmidt was the brace-laced, Eminem-wannabe dweeb and Jenko knew the rules of cool better than anyone else (rule one: one-strap your backpack, always) — they find their different backgrounds complement one another. Schmidt’s brains support Jenko’s brawn and vice versa — in theory.
It’s not enough to save the two from ending up in 21 Jump Street, a police squad for the inept and youthful. Headed by Captain Dickson (Ice Cube, never scarier) and located in a Korean church, the squad’s first mission is to infiltrate high school and bust a synthetic drug ring. Here the misfit pair finds an outlet for their juvenile incompetence by pretending to be teens when they’re clearly not — neither Hill nor Tatum look under 20 — and the script milks the absurdity for all it is worth.
The concept avoids more clichés and pitfalls than you’d expect. The prologue establishing Jenko and Schmidt’s teenage years is sweet and subtle and the section on their first days on the job is a 101 course on pitch-perfect comedic set-up in film. While they’re no Harold or Kumar, Schmidt and Jenko prove an endearing pair. Hill is comfortable with his “Michael Cera but stouter” schtick, while Tatum proves to be the real discovery.
After years of Nicholas Sparks groaners and bit action parts, he demonstrates comedy chops nobody knew existed. He starts off big, handsome and dumb, then grows into a dorky teddy bear as his investigations take him into the chemistry club. Slapstick and deadpan come easy to him — after seeing Tatum jump through a bass drum while hopped up on the mystery drug, I’d recommend he stick with his new career path.
Solid supporting actors flesh out the story space between buddy gags. Brie Larson makes a pleasant love interest to Hill, and Michael Bacall’s screenplay gives them some convincing exchanges to build their relationship. James Franco’s younger brother, Dave, plays a student drug dealer who also preaches equality, eco-awareness and social activism. His off-kilter resemblance to Justin Bieber sells most of the performance. He’s a Disney sitcom star lost in a world of gunfights and penis jokes.
Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller use their animation experience from “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” to add surreal, visual touches to the drug-induced hallucinations, but when it comes time for guns to go off, they play the violence far too straight. People get run over, brutally shot and horribly massacred, only for the film to turn around and yell, “Hah! It’s funny!” The script similarly wants to have its cake and eat it too: it satirizes homophobic humor only to fall back on a line of ready-made cracks on blowjobs, sex and castration.
Even raunchy humor needs an emotional line to follow. “21 Jump Street” has a cast of inherently funny characters that don’t need crudity forced upon them; if the film realized this, it might possibly have entered the pantheon of Apatow classics. As is, it’s funny, smart at times and entertaining enough to warrant a peek.