You’re Gonna Learn Something When We Meet You After School

03/15/2012 4:00 AM |

21 Jump Street
Directed by Chris Miller and Phil Lord

Fresh off a brush with Oscar, Jonah Hill has shed pounds like it’s his job in the past year or so, his focus squarely on becoming another kind of heavyweight entirely. Although he’s moved on from playing the portly teenagers that carried him to Hollywood and indiewood stardom throughout his early to mid 20s, he’s yet to carry a truly successful project on his own shoulders (to be fair, he’s only had one crack at it, that being indie lyricist turned Hollywood metteur en scene David Gordon Green’s regrettable The Sitter). That may change with the cinematic retooling of 80s cop show 21 Jump Street, a mostly pedestrian but occasionally rousing buddy comedy that both send up the drug war and reinforces its most onerous aspects.

Hill, who shares a story credit and executive produced, stars with Channing Tatum as rival high school stereotypes in the film’s efficient opening sequence, who are reunited several years later on the police force of a fictional American city with an asinine name. Of course they become partners, filling out their days as a pair of bike cops who get promoted from busting potheads in parks to an undercover job masquerading as students at their alma mater, to bust the makers of a new (and of course, oh so dangerous) synthetic drug that’s all the rage with the youngsters and seems like a relatively harmless psychedelic until you drop dead.

Ice Cube air mails a performance as their preternaturally (and stereotypically) angry black captain, and Johnny Depp, a star of the original program, drops by for a brief, not terribly funny cameo (as does Holly Robinson Peete, rising from the 90s sitcom dead in her brief role as a fellow cop), but in general the film is carried by Hill and Tatum’s bustling comedic rapport, which generally makes for pleasant viewing, although the forced irony becomes grating. The insistent self-referential winking, while sometimes clever (at least the film is self-aware as another crappy remake of a TV show no one really missed) lacks the persistent outlandishness of the best comedies from the Apatow family, Hill’s nerdy high school loser and Tatum’s muscular, bratty jock personaes aside.

Of course, as the best comedies are, the humor here is driven by issues that in the real world are deeply unfunny things, and it speaks to the filmmakers’ cowardice that they lack the panache to tackle them with any depth. A pity. Of course, what else is to be expected? Teenage boys of all ages aren’t likely to read the film with much rigor, and the people who wrote and financed it, many of whom likely indulge in illegal substances of one sort or another, aren’t likely to find themselves on the wrong side of the law anytime soon, so why should they make much hay about the absurdity of the drug war? Look no further for yet more proof that Hollywood still prefers to send its messages with Western Union.

Opens March 16