As a film 21 Jump Street shouldn’t work. It’s too many things at one time: a remake of a 80s teenage PSA tv drama, a buddy movie, a “back to high school” flick, a cop thriller, and a rom com. And yet, it works, mostly because the leads, Channing Tatum (less mumbly than in The Vow) and Jonah Hill clearly enjoy each other’s company. Their genuine enthusiasm for their roles as newbie cops out to solve their first big case is infectious. I laughed from almost the first frame to the last. Well, a few frames in, since the setup scene follows Hill’s Schmidt being tortured by Tatum’s Jenko in high school and I just don’t find those “Josie Grosie” kinda scenes funny. Of course, since both boys end up crying about the prom within 5 minutes of meeting them, it becomes clear that Jenko isn’t necessarily a bad guy, he’s just trying to follow the set rules of being popular. After meeting up again at Police Academy, the two quickly realize that they need each other: Jenko needs Schmidt’s study skills and Schmidt needs Jenko’s physical prowess. A little too quickly and conveniently, the past is seemingly forgotten and a genuine relationship between dudes who wanna be awesome cops bustin’ the bad guys forms. Until, of course, this odd couple ‘effs it up and are subsequently sent to the titular ’21 Jump Street program’ where they have to go back to high school to infiltrate a party drug distribution ring.
No! Not High School! At least, that’s how Schmidt feels, who never ever ever wants to experience that awfulness again (I hear that, bro.) Jenko, of course, is excited to go back to high school where he was the shit, so he gives Schmidt what turns out to be ill-informed advice. See, it’s not the 90s anymore. Hipsters and geeks are in. Bros and jocks are out. Schmidt excels in this new environment, which not only helps the case, but also helps his self-esteem as he pursues a fellow classmate, played by the wonderful Brie Larson from United States of Tara. She’s 18 so it’s only sorta creepy for an Apatow-associated film. However, while Schmidt is flourishing, Jenko is confused and the genuine relationship between the two young men suffers. It is this tension, more so than the “who is selling this random communion wafer drug” drama, that captured my attention. I felt for Schmidt, who was finally fitting in, but I also hated to see Jenko, who honestly just didn’t know any better as popularity had been handed to him mostly because of his genetic structure.
What made the film work for me is that it was not only self-referential (including an excellent cameo by Johnny Depp), but also completely non-ironic. I’m not even sure how that’s possible, but it happened. The film is smart, but not smart-alecky. It’s funny, but not sarcastic. It’s cool, but not hip. To me, the best parts were the chemistry between Hill and Tatum, a fine supporting class, some clichéd hijinks that are successfully hijink-y, and clear enthusiasm from everyone involved. I give it a solid 3 Mittens. I probably won’t see it again in the theater, but I’m sure there will be a lazy afternoon one day where I’m like, “Yes! 21 Jump Street, that’s exactly what I wanna watch today!”