June 29, 2012

DVD OF THE WEEK: 21 Jump Street

by Vadim Rizov

21 Jump Street

21 Jump Street is the best-crafted, most consistently funny American studio comedy since 2007's Superbad. Both star Jonah Hill, a relatively unlikely leading man, here at his most slimmed-down, introduced in a 2005 prologue as a too-much-too-late Slim Shady lookalike aspirant to cool kid status, a nerd whose bumbling prom overtures to a hot childhood friend are met with unambiguously mocking laughter. The main joke is that his return in the present as an undercover cop along with admitted jock Channing Tatum makes Hill a popular kid on the ascent. His liberal pieties, quick bully-scorning wit and comfortably unconventional appearance help him fit right in, while Tatum's self-secure stupidity no longer is a sure route to popularity.

An R-rated comedy that's already proven massively profitable, the $42-million 21 Jump Street has already made $192 million worldwide. Ostensibly trading upon the market value of its once-popular TV series namesake, it has even less meaningful relationship to the show than, say, 1995's The Brady Bunch Movie, which mocked its model as an out-of-date, socially laughable anachronism. 21 Jump Street pays sardonic lip service in the form of an updated police station church, plausibly inspired by LA's Koreatown and complete with a meme-ready wood carving of a "Korean Jesus." "We had our production designer create a partially Korean Jesus," noted co-director Phil Lord; "not so much that it was impossible or grossly racist. Just slightly racist was what we were going for." A similarly deft attention is paid throughout towards characters that initially come off as stereotyped goofs are later revealed to have hidden comic depths. It makes sense that the only element to fall flat is Ice Cube as Loud, Belligerent Cop Ironically Played By Ice Cube—a one-note joke with minimal screen time not that far off from Not Another Teen Movie's "Token Black Guy."

21 Jump Street

Morton Schmidt (Hill) is sent back to infiltrate the nerds, his high-school nemesis turned best friend Greg Jenko (Tatum) the jocks. Since graduation, Morton's been Greg's non-stop remedial trainer, and the two have genuine rapport. Assigned to re-assume their high school roles as part of an undercover drug bust, they find a whole new social taxonomy exists. Striding through the parking lot, Greg's first shocked when his strategy for popularity (taunt anyone who tries to achieve anything) can't even identify who to pick on: "Those are jocks, those are nerds... I don't know what those are."

"Those" are unambiguously Wikipedia-defined hipsters, with carefully coordinated clothing and androgynously appealing style, led by (of course) James Franco's younger brother Dave. As drug dealer/earnest environmentalist Eric, he's always up for a good party and unable to see any contradiction between his sincere progressive beliefs (the kids are uniformly anti-homophobic and strongly environmentalist) and negative social actions: not so much as a drug dealer, but as a petty tyrant enforcing new norms about who's cool. The drug crisis—a standard "Jump Street" plotline, befitting a show that spawned a lot of PSAs—is laughed off as the excuse for a sequence of Hill/Tatum tripping (the latter nails his "Peter Pan" song audition under the influence) and an end-credits mock-Requiem for a Dream montage of TV-scavenged cheesy ephemera.

21 Jump Street

21 Jump Street acknowledges that the old model for American high schools in movies is obsolete: jocks vs. nerds plus assorted sub-cliques no longer applies. Tatum turns to musical theater and hangs out with programming nerds in the lab, while Hill takes up partying. Once-marginal beliefs are now normal and duly recognized in a mainstream context. In its portrait of a new, casual social liberalism, 21 Jump Street has a reasonably cogent message about the kids being OK.

Rewriting the high-school comedy landscape gives 21 Jump Street a spine even when scenes are clearly improvised. Dialogue is delivered at a rapid clip by every cast member, abetting jokes with forceful speed. Better yet, every shot of Lord and Chris Miller's film is meticulously composed in widescreen, every frame a crisp pleasure rather than a bleary staging ground for ad-libbing. Combining thematic focus with visual attentiveness, 21 Jump Street is a model comedy.

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Posted by ahillis at June 29, 2012 8:29 AM