The Meta moves awfully quickly these days. 21 Jump Street has been out for about 36 hours, and already we’ve gone from “this is way better than anyone thought it would be” to “this isn’t quite as good as everyone is saying.” Serves me right for not keeping up with the curve.
In any case, while the film itself is plenty funny, it’s really not anything more. We arrive, we laugh, we marvel at the appearance of gags aimed above the waistline, and we move on with our merry lives none the worse for wear. Considering the film’s status as a throwaway reboot of a minor 80s TV series, the fact that we get anything worthwhile out of it at all is a minor miracle.
The original show constituted one of the first breakout hits for the then-fledgling Fox network, featuring a group of youthful cops who infiltrate local high schools to bring down teenage criminals. It’s notable mostly for launching the career of one Jonathan Christopher Depp, who so resented the teen idol status it gave him that he deliberately avoided mainstream projects for decades. The film has a tricky task before it. It could decide to play the idea straight or riff on it for laughs… both of which would likely doom it. Instead, it takes the basic idea and does its own thing with it: generating humor from its own sources rather than mining the TV show. Indeed, its few stumbles come with the expected guest cameos and obvious nods to the old show, which sort of work but never hit the home runs for which they’re clearly intended.
The rest of 21 Jump Street, however, draws its humor from more potent sources. Its two cops – tough-but-dim Jenko (Channing Tatum) and bright-but-dumpy Schmidt (Jonah Hill) – had very different experiences in high school. Jenko was the jock douchebag, delivering wedgies and snide remarks while quietly failing all his classes. Schmidt was the campus geek, acing his grades while establishing one-man juggling clubs to cover up for the fact that no one would give him the time of day. That changes when they graduate and join the police academy, where they become unlikely friends. Each uses their strength to help the other overcome their deficiencies and graduate to… bike cops. When that doesn’t pan out, they get sent to Jump Street, then back to high school to bust a string of drug dealers.
The crime aspects serve mainly as window dressing for the two characters and their struggle to re-integrate with teenage life. Schmidt finds himself as the cool kid in his new surroundings, while Jenko is the ostracized geek. Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller mine a lot of gags from their dilemma. Hill basically does his well-meaning schlub routine, but with solid material behind him, he reminds us how well that can work. Tatum matches pace for him perfectly: embracing the potential of a dense doofus and adroitly responding to Hill’s cues.
The two of them benefit from the film’s clarity of purpose and the dedication to succeeding at its modest goals without half-assing things. The gags are funny, the character arcs hold together, and the results evoke nostalgia for the show without losing the hordes of people who never gave a crap about it. It even takes a few digs at the process which created it, noting Hollywood’s relentless fear of originality even as it skirts the very trap it works so hard to decry.
Those efforts have earned it critical praise and an apparently big box office windfall this weekend. The only question is whether the relief we feel at it not sucking turns into overhype. 21 Jump Street will never be mistaken for a great teen movie, like Easy A or John Hughes’ works. But it earns its laughs and never takes our affection for granted. You can’t condemn its disposability too loudly in the face of assets like that.