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Pecking Order

by Ann Morrow on March 22, 2012

21 Jump Street
Directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller

Is it too early for 2005 nostalgia? You know, those mid-years before the super-sensitizing of alternate sexuality, green economy, and inclusiveness over exclusiveness?  Apparently not, because 21 Jump Street, a spoof on the late-’80s Fox TV show that launched Johnny Depp, effectively drop-kicks the first decade of the new millennium with more zingers than the silly plot would suggest. After a high-school student ODs on a designer drug called HFS in front of his webcam, Jump Street, the undercover program sending rookie cops into high schools as students, is revived. Bottom-of-their-class police officers Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenkins (Channing Tatum) are recruited, partly for their youthful looks, and partly because they’re useless on the force.

The script (co-written by Hill) is overloaded with dick jokes and cheap homoeroticism (which isn’t daring or original enough to be funny). Yet its unrepentantly juvenile exuberance is contagious, and when the two cops—one a former high school jock idol and the other the pudgy class loser—mix up their fake identities, they are forced to relive their high school years—and to do so by walking in the other’s shoes. Handsome but dim Jenkins gets sent to chemistry class to hang with the geeks, while timid Schmidt is enrolled in the drama department. The subversive streak that makes the movie actually involving beyond its anything-for-a-chuckle attitude (dare ya not to booya for Korean Jesus) is that sensitive, cerebral Schmidt is now the apex of cool, while intimidating stud-muffin Jenkins is ostracized by the cool clique, and is especially disliked by the clique’s leader, delicate-looking, polyamorous Eric (Dave Franco, prettier younger brother of James Franco).

It’s while investigating the school’s drug supply that the two cops begin to fit in in ways that are amusing (Jenkins learns to like chemistry because it allows him, finally, to blow shit up) and dead-on satirical (Schmidt’s instantaneous fluency in texting). And it gets some things right that most teen comedies totally blow, such as the various stages of drug euphoria, and a house-party fight sequence during which the camera follows Jenkins on an ass-kicking rampage from the precisely ridiculous POV of dazed but drunkenly unalarmed partygoers. Bland as a leading man, Tatum is really funny as a doofus.

However, just when 21 Jump Street surpasses Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion for buffoonish nostalgia mixed with a wry send-up of those peculiarly passionate same-sex friendships so characteristic of young adulthood, it crashes into a predictable, shoot-’em-up and gross-’em-out finale that seems like one, or all, of the filmmakers had a panic attack that the film wasn’t puerile enough. High school may have changed since ’05, but Hollywood certainly hasn’t.