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Film Review: 21 Jump Street

21 Jump Street (Directed by Phil Lord & Chris Miller)

I wish I could say that I don’t know why I decided to give 21 Jump Street a chance, but in fact, I know exactly why I watched it. I seriously doubted that Hollywood’s latest self-aware comedic retooling of a dated ‘80s television show would hold much appeal for me, but overcame that impulse on account of the directors’ credit. It was the live-action directorial debut of Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the creative duo behind the side-splitting cult animated show Clone High and the marvelous, hilarious feature Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and their brand of rapid, giddy comedy had huge potential, even with such questionable material.

I should have heeded those doubts. 21 Jump Street is a cluttered, frantic calamity, intermittently funny but generally infected by the phage of raunchy, crude masculine infantilism that has turned the once-proud American film comedy into a quarantine zone for adults. Working from a script by Michael Bacall (who also gets story credit with co-star Jonah Hill), Lord and Miller try their best to insert their zany signature into the proceedings, and sometimes even succeed. But the movie remains a frequently-misfiring mess that no director, no matter their talents in the comedic sphere, could salvage.

The story, such as it is, adapts the popular social-issues TV drama which launched the career of a young Johnny Depp (who cameos briefly here) into a putative send-up of both high school movies and police action flicks. This should be fertile ground for Lord and Miller, who specialize in reproducing the narrative and thematic tropes of popular genres (disaster films in Cloudy, high school comedies in Clone High) and putting just enough of a defamiliarized twist on them to make the viewer question why those tropes exist in the first place. Their humor comes not from the sharpness of their satire, though, but from the obsessive speed and subtle surrealism of the jokes.

Unfortunately, Bacall’s jokes are not suited to their tone, being mostly of the genuinely sophomoric variety and not of the parodic sophomoric variety that Lord and Miller’s previous work excels at. Much of this failure is down to the leads as well. As a pair of youthful cops of complimentary ineptitude drafted into an undercover unit in a local high school and tasked with busting a mysterious drug ring, the aforementioned Hill and Hollywood It-Stud Channing Tatum do fine with the crudity, as far as it goes. But their timing is not well-aligned with the frenetic pace that Lord and Miller try to establish.

There’s the occasional amusing fish-out-of-water moment, as their characters assume undercover identities that are the opposite of their own high school experiences: the socially-awkward Hill (whose appeal mystifies me) gets in with the sensitive, socially-conscious artsy popular kids while the handsome jock Tatum (who is a game enough performer, despite the natural blank look that his face defaults to) finds himself in the company of tech and science nerds.

However, the visual highlight of the whole movie is a thoroughly random and surreal sequence following the cops sampling the super-hallucinogenic drug they’re in the school to bust. It’s a moment that has little to do with the actors, but more to do with the visual imagination of Lord and Miller, whose animation instincts take over as the head of a suspicious teacher turns into a talking ice cream cone. But this is a brief flash of brilliance in this movie, which otherwise hems in such whimsical impulses from its directorial team. Mostly, it’s just… off.

That may come across as an insufficiently specific criticism, but then one of the hardest things to write about as a critic is why something is not funny when it is trying to be so. To adapt Woody Allen’s truism, writing about comedy, more so than even writing about music, is like dancing about architecture. The creation of comedy is such an improvisational process, such an ephemeral, almost unquantifiable state of being, that explaining why it does or doesn’t work is pure folly. But 21 Jump Street, despite so many elements that ought to be going in its favour, is not very funny. It isn’t folly to admit that, although perhaps it was folly to expect it to be anything more.

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Categories: Film, Reviews
  1. April 21, 2013 at 12:16 pm

    I like this site so much, saved to favorites.

  1. February 19, 2014 at 5:38 pm

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