The best comic duo of 2012 so far.

21 Jump Street has much more in common with recent comedies like Pineapple Express and Superbad than it does with the 90’s TV show it is a loose sequel to. Obnoxious, crude, and irreverent as all get out, the comedy is of a style that has become familiar but never seems to get old.

The real treat here, though, is the great chemistry between Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum as partners Schmidt and Jenko. They are fucking hilarious together and their sweet, earnest, and slightly gay bromance is of a kind with the two comedies I mentioned above with a little something special, probably provided as much by directing team Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Clone High, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs) as by the more-heartfelt-than-average script from Michael Bacall (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World) and Jonah Hill. 

I graduated from high school in 2005 too, didn’t see much Eminem influence anymore so I suppose this is part of the joke.

Jenko an Schmidt are opposites; Jenko’s a good-looking jock who happens to be a moron and Schmidt is an insecure dork who happens to be really smart. How these two negotiate their advantages and disadvantages is the basis for their friendship, formed out of mutual necessity seven years after high school. Each is challenged in different ways by the police academy which foreshadows how each will be challenged later on, during the case that takes them back to high school.

Jenko might be the dumb guy, but it turns out he’s got a knack for inventive policework. Left to his own devices by Schmidt, who gets enamored with his double-life among the cool kids and especially drama hotness Molly (Brie Larson) who actually seems to like him, Jenko often gets to come off like the better guy. The other thing about him is that all he really wants is for Schmidt to love him like a brother, something he even says at one point in this kicked-puppy cute way that is going to destroy women who see this movie. Apparently Tatum brought this little piece of pathos to the role all on his own and it is really the emotional core of the movie. Whenever Jenko’s brawn and adrenaline don’t seem to be called for or helpful, he manages to pull out some kinda cleverness. Meanwhile Schmidt gets lost in the cover and for all his smarts can’t seem to keep his priorities straight. This is Jenko’s redemption, kind of. Schmidt also gets his own, finding a way to be courageous and loyal in spite of his insecurity. He also gets the girl and it’s telling, and fitting, that Jenko doesn’t have a love interest in the film. It would have been easy to give him one, but 21 Jump Street does an amazing job of balancing the payoffs for both of these guys, and you really want them to get payoffs.

Wasting little time with its inspiration, 21 Jump Street frames its status as a remake/sequel/whatever by making a joke out of Hollywood’s penchant for the type of project that 21 Jump Street seems like but isn’t. Other details are around for fans of the old show, including an inspired cameo by Johnny Depp reprising a grizzled version of his old character, but mostly this film is pretty divorced from its predecessor. The most obvious common feature is, of course, that these are cops going back to high school.

Much of the comedy is about high school. Probably more so than about police stuff. That’s fair, as the target audience for this movie is people who are the same age as Hill and Tatum, people who did graduate from high school 5-10 years ago and will get the most out of the comedy derived from things like that the politically correct hipsters are pushers and drama geeks are cool kids. This falters a bit as the nerdy kids are still as identifiable as they were in The Revenge of the Nerds, but I think it may be kinda true that there’s a class of high school nerd that never gets out of the social awkwardness, eccentric pastimes, and even the sense of style that has been made fun of or celebrated for decades. 21 Jump Street kinda celebrates it, too, putting Jenko in a position where he’s with the nerds and finds more in common with them than he could with the cool kids, who are simply a different breed from the casually cruel and idiotic jocks he remembers as his people.

Tatum is a revelation here, showing effortless comedic chops and upstaging everyone else in the movie. To its credit, 21 Jump Street knows what it has in him and gives him the most room to just be and it works majestically. I’ve long thought Tatum had greatness in him and there are hints of it in previous performances, but this is the first time he’s shone in such a way that no one is going to be able to say shit. He’s the opposite of “wooden” and I hope he and his agent understand that he needs more roles like this sprinkled in with all the action movies and franchise attempts.

Ice Cube gets a lot of the best material in the movie, but there’s something about Tatum’s moronic performance that transcends the great writing here.

There are a few places where the movie is underdeveloped and could actually have used a bit more runtime. One of them is the other cops working similar cases in other schools. A bit of rivalry is developed between Jenko and Schmidt and a female pair, but they don’t get to do much in the movie and it’s a bit weird. Feels like some stuff was left on the cutting room floor there and while I can respect a need to not juggle too many characters, this felt lacking. Likewise, Ellie Kemper’s horny-ass teacher is funny and a great running joke but she never gets to really do anything or be a character. I kinda thought they were setting her up as a love interest for Jenko. I’m glad they backed off from that (sorta, the end credits have a hilarious payoff for this) but would have liked to see more. Riggle being the villain is pretty predictable and while there are no villains of the same caliber as those in Pineapple Express here, it’s not really a problem given that 21 Jump Street is much more light-hearted and feel-good than that movie was.

Now those are nitpicks, obviously. This type of movie gets pretty much everything right. The only thing left to complain about are personal things you bring to the movie. For example, I can see how someone would criticize it for being a bit misogynistic here and there but I don’t know that it’s a fair point and it certainly isn’t thematic or pressing enough to be distractingly problematic. I can only think of one example, really, that you could use to even make the claim: the drunk promgirl in the limo near the end.

Bromance, you understand?

What really works in 21 Jump Street, aside from the humor, is the sincerity. Truthfully, there are a lot of good movies with this kind of friendship at their core. It is a valuable force in cinema, too, with movies like The Hangover projecting a very different, and more fucked up, type of male friendship. While Apatow comedies and their breed, which this is, tend to depict male bonds as being just a few cocktails short of gay, maybe that’s a fair observation about male friendship after all. Maybe all male friendships are a little gay. 21 Jump Street seems to be celebrating that as much as Superbad did and, considering the source, that makes sense. Whether or not guys feel like this is too gay a bromance for them, there’s a reason why the word “bromance” exists at all. There’s a romance, in the old school sense of the word, attached to male bonding. From the camaraderie of soldiers, steeped in tradition and antiquated sentiment, to that which is shared by a couple of guys who simply fill a void in each other’s lives, as Schmidt and Jenko do. There’s a lot for women to learn about the male psyche and how our friendships form and persist from movies like 21 Jump Street and, while it’s all played for laughs and sometimes over-the-top, it’s also remarkably sincere.

A final bit of praise for the movie goes to how it handles the central drug which is the raison d’etre for the case. The drug is called Holy Fucking Shit and the scenes that show us how it works are some of the funniest in the movie. A cameo by Johnny Simmons begins the descent into this rabbit hole and it is awesome.

A final, final bit of praise: the end credits sequence (not post-credits, I didn’t stay to see if there was one of those) is not to be missed. It is crazy, hilarious, and almost like some kind of brain bomb of the kinds of concepts and imagery that are buried in the male psyche since 1985 or so. It’s amazing.

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