March 16, 2012


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Written by: Mitch Salem
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21 JUMP STREET:  Watch It At Home – High School Meta-Bromance


The meta-ization of contemporary comedy marches on:  Community, of course, is a virtual meta-kingdom, but Happy Endings makes Friends jokes, this week’s 30 Rock undercut what appeared to be its own sentimental ending with jokes poking at viewers who might like sentimental endings, and Ricky Gervais, at this point, is so self-referential that he’s all but disappeared up his own rectum.   The new movie revamp of the 1980s TV show 21 JUMP STREET establishes its meta-credentials early, as a senior cop (Nick Offerman) complains to his misfit rookies Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) that the people in charge have run out of new ideas and just keep rehashing the tired old ones–we get it, he’s supposed to be talking about the senior police brass, but really it’s a gag about the moviemakers themselves. 

Acknowledging your own lack of originality isn’t really enough to earn you credit for being smart anymore, but luckily the 21 Jump Street movie is moderately clever in its own right.  The original TV show, of course, took itself very seriously, despite its risible premise, itself a variation on The Mod Squad:  a squad of youthful cops (famously headed by Johnny Depp) sent undercover to high schools to root out crime.  The movie, written by Michael Bacall (from a story by Bacall and Jonah Hill), parodies the whole idea, as one character after another wonders why the two new students–especially Tatum–look so adult, while the cops fumble their way to finding the source of a dangerous new designer drug

Where the script proves itself a cut above the usual R-rated high school comedy (including Project X, also written by Bacall) is in its recognition of just how much pop culture has changed in a short time.  Even though Jenko and Schmidt are only 7 years out of high school themselves, they’re shocked to find out that the drug pushers in this school are gay-tolerant and ecology-minded, on their way to colleges like Berkeley.  Jenko blames it on Glee.  (The nerds, though, are still the nerds–some high school conventions never change.)  Also, through a mishap the undercover identities for Jenko and Schmidt, who are supposed to be brothers (such an unlikely gene pool that Schmidt has to explain to someone that Jenko was adopted), end up switched, so the outcast Schmidt is a popular track star and placed in easy A courses like Theatre, while Jenko finds himself in the Siberia of AP (pronounced “ap”) Chemistry.  A lot of the fun that ensues comes from the fact that the script takes some unexpected turns, especially as Jenko discovers his inner science geek.

Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the third animators in the last 4 months to make the leap to live-action (after Brad Bird with Mission Impossible 4 and Andrew Stanton, less happily, with John Carter) show the same affection for misfits that they did in Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs, and they wisely let Hill and Tatum relax into their roles.  Tatum, in particular, seems capable of following Mark Wahlberg into a career straddling action movies and comedy, and he even brings a certain soulfulness to Jenko’s coming to terms with no longer being cool.  He and Hill end up making a sweet bromantic couple.  There’s also a terrific supporting cast that includes Brie Larson as Hill’s nubile potential love interest, Dave Franco as the school’s head dealer, Ellie Kemper as a teacher unable to take her eyes off Tatum, Ice Cube as the squad’s self-described “angry black Captain” (complete with Public Enemy on the soundtrack), and a cameo from a certain movie star whose appearance isn’t quite up to Bill Murray’s in Zombieland, but is pretty enjoyable nonetheless.

Lord and Miller are less comfortable with the disposable action scenes that take up chunks of the second half–although even those have some good jokes–and narrative isn’t the movie’s strong point, as characters drop in and out, and story points rush by perfunctorily.  In the world of bankrupt creative Hollywood ideas, though, 21 Jump Street can hold up its head relatively high.   (Note to Hollywood:  that doesn’t mean we need Matthew McConaughey and Danny McBride in a big-screen version of Simon & Simon.)

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."