Monday, March 19, 2012

Not Quite 21 Things About 21 Jump Street

Seeing a film through the filter of its opening weekend can be tricky these days. I wasn't able to attend the media screening of Phil Lord and Chris Miller's big screen 21 Jump Street adaptation (I do use that word lightly) and hadn't really intended on seeing it afterwards except for maybe on DVD, however, the very impressive word of mouth it received got me intrigued. I can't imagine my opinion of the film would have been much different if I had seen it before the buzz or, like I did today, after it, but I feel like I may have been actively seeking out what others had found so good. "Was it this?" "Was it that?" Hmmm. Nevertheless, I found the film to be far more enamoured with itself than I ever could be. So in love with the idea of itself that I felt it failed to really do much with it. While it is certainly not as bad as Friends With Benefits in the "we're-gonna-mock-the-genre-conventions-while-adhering-to-them-anyway" world of revisionist comedies, it's certainly no Scream.

Naturally I tried to write a proper review, but I couldn't quite form it in a way that I was happy with, so I took the lazy way out and decided to write a list of, what else, 21 things I did and did not like from 21 Jump Street.

**This piece does include some SPOILERS so I would suggest not getting angry at me when you read something you didn't want to, okay?**

1. - PRO: Channing Tatum. I've never actively disliked the man, but have never truly been a fan. His "Jenko" was easily the best I have ever seen him - both in an acting and purely physical capacities - and not just because the film around him has a good sense of who they cast. He knows that people have the opinion of him as little more than a thick-necked lunk-head, but here he played both with and against it. Never trying to hide the fact that he's a big hunky man, but also allowing it to inform his humour and to make people's perceptions of him work for the film rather than define it. He was Best In Show.

2. - CON: Jonah Hill. I liked him in Moneyball (that Oscar nomination, however, was rather unnecessary), but I've never truly liked this guy. I'm not entirely sure what it is that rubs me the wrong way about him, but I routinely find myself recoiling from his performances. I find the awkward tension he brought to this role rather... well, awkward. I understand he was instrumental in getting the film made, and so I guess that's a job well done for him, but there was little here that allowed his "Schmidt" to live outside of the cliched roles of High School cliques. Tatum brought such pizzazz to his part when he was being both cool and uncool, Hill on the other hand felt safe and timid when he needed to step it up.

3. - PRO: Brie Larson. If I had a say then Brie Larson would have at least two Emmy Awards for the two seasons of The United States of Tara that I actually watched. She was such a punchy presence on that show and in that brief Scott Pilgrim vs The World cameo that I have been hoping she would find some break out success and it appears she has done so with this film. The performance is little more than her Tara character minus the divine ensemble interactions that were so memorable on the small screen, but she positively lights up almost all of her scenes - if we run out of things to talk about by the end of the list maybe we'll discuss the way the film throws her under the bus by the end - with such an effervescence that really made me almost believe she could fall for Jonah Hill AND Dave Franco. That so little is made of Hill's character, who is in his mid-20s, falling for a girl of about 17 years of age might say something, but I'm not entirely sure.

4. - CON: The concept. The concept of adults going back to school works as a profoundly inoffensive high concept goof and makes a direct counter argument to the joke that movies set in High School always seem to be populated by actors in their later 20s. What I found problematic was the idea that those who were once considered "uncool" are now the new cool and those who were once "cool" are... well, you get the picture. Unfortunately, the film doesn't even seem to fully engage this concept and by making the once uncool Schmidt cool again the filmmakers have essentially made a film ENTIRELY ABOUT COOL PEOPLE! And, furthermore, Tatum and Hill's characters appear to have gone back to a school where the once cool jocks (the kind that Tatum's character personifies in a flashback prologue) not only are no longer cool, but no longer exist. It appears everybody in this school now falls into a clique that has achieved some form of pop culture cachet. Whether it be the goths, the Japanime dolls or the hipsters. Oh, except for the nerds. The nerds are still thoroughly uncool. Well, they're uncool except nobody seems to care, so are they uncool or not? It all seemed like quite a reductive view of high school, and maybe it's just my own experience of going to a high school where people as short and stout as Jonah Hill were just as much bully to me I didn't quite find the almost redemptive angle his arc took to be quite as rousing and entertaining.

Perhaps the very best scene in the entire film was when Tatum enters the science lab and begins an invisible light sabre duel with one of the phone-hacking nerds he has found himself lumped with. That he grows to appreciate the smart kids isn't a revelation, what's entertaining is how much fun his character has in doing so. Hill's integration into the popular group was leaden and completely unbelievable for somebody who is apparently as smart as he is.

5. - PRO: MA15+. I'm glad the film had such a gleeful time with its very unGlee-esque representation of high school - Glee, it should be pointed out, is a target of one of screenwriter Michael Bacall's more direct comedic missiles - and that it didn't skimp on the curse words or even the violence once it finally gets there. The hallucination sequences were also a lot of fun and I liked the way the "phases" were brought back into the film every now and then.

6. - CON: Slim Shady. Was it saying something about Jonah Hill's character that he was hopeless out of date by a good five years in the film's opening flashback sequence? Dying your hair bleach blonde and listening to "The Real Slim Shady" was surely the hip thing to do in 2000 for cool and uncool people (wanting to be cool) alike, but in 2005?

7. - PRO: Gay. Not so much the dick-in-mouth jokes that punctuate the film - inoffensive as they are - but I liked the one scene where a characters homosexuality it directly addressed. There's a funny joke from a misunderstanding and then it's promptly put to the side where nobody really notices, as it should be I guess.

8. - CON: Hello/Goodbye. Characters come and go from this film with such a blatant nonchalance that it's actually distracting. Much is made of Tatum's first encounter with a horny teacher played by Bridesmaids' Ellie Kemper - riffing off of a similar fake chirpy performance by Lucy "Shut the front door!" Punch in Bad Teacher - and yet she promptly vanishes until the climactic Prom scene. The same fate befalls Rob Riggle, which is even more strange since the entire third act revolves around him (and even then they don't do much with him). I guess I should be thankful that Angela Bassett wasn't saddled with the shouty-shouty exposition only role that Ice Cube has, but between Green Lantern and This Means War I suspect Ms Bassett has had enough of that game. Also: Holly Robinson Peete?

9. - CON: I say "climactic Prom scene", but it really isn't. In what appears to be a missed opportunity, the two undercover cops don't even get to experience the Prom that the opening scene dictates - they were both unable to go, but for very different reasons - but instead transfers all the big action to a bland, nondescript hotel room and then a car chase in the streets. I admit I got a giggle from the sight of three stretch limousines careening about through the streets mid-battle, but it fails as an action setpiece due to its reliance on people being unable to use weapons properly and by weird, unnecessary side gags. I surely can't be the only one who thought the film's lack of a "coming out" scene as it were where the two new students are revealed as the cops that they really are was an odd misstep? Maybe that would have been too predictable for a film that so clearly thought it was being really smart with the conventions of all the genres it mash-mashed together, but when its replaced by rather run of the film goofball action I was unimpressed.

10. - PRO: The thing we're not really meant to talk about, but since I included a SPOILER warning at the start I guess I can. So, Johnny Depp? I liked that he was here and had a bit a fun where we least expect it. Still makes me sad that Wes Craven once figured Depp was so busy/disinterested that he didn't even bother to ask Depp to appear as himself in Wes Craven's New Nightmare. Wouldn't that have been a hoot to see! I'm going to neglect that the reveal of Depp's character is all a bit obvious, but what can you expect from a film that had been choosing the obvious jokes almost every single step of the way.

11. - CON: Brie Larson, again. Okay, so remember how I said we might come back to Brie Larson's character? Well here we are. I had liked the way the film had set up her character of Molly. I didn't, however, like the way it scuttled her to the sidelines in a rather cheap and ungainly drug-related fashion. Not only did it seemingly go against her characters convictions, but it provided the rather unattractive sight gag of seeing her limp, unconscious body fly about the interior of a car as it speeds about through a guns-on-wheel chase through the streets. And then, voila, she resumes to her conscious state just in time to call Jonah Hill an "asshole" and kiss him. Young love, folks.

11. - CON: The other girl in the limousine. Who was she and why was she there other than to provide, I guess, a joke about the only woman Tatum's Jenko could get is a drunken one. Oh how hilare. Still, she's promptly - and literally - pushed the curb so I don't think we're meant to think about her very much, are we?

12. - PRO: Jokes. It's hardly surprising that I laughed quite a few times given that the film was flinging gags at the wall and hoping they would stick, but despite the obvious nature of many of the jokes I did indeed laugh. I liked the early scene where Nick Offerman's deputy chief rants about how nobody does anything original anymore and just copies something from 20 years prior. By that stage of the film the filmmakers hadn't punched their premise into the skull so much for it to still actually be funny. I liked many of the references to how teenagers view the world through movies - the slow motion doves were particularly amusing - the aforementioned hallucination bits, and some of Tatum's frat boy mannerisms hit the right note. Nothing uproarious though. But yeesh, how many jokes about sliding over the hood of a car do we need to see? I swear I've seen that elsewhere, too.

13. - UMM: I can't really think of anything else.

14. - PRO/CON: Oh! Dave Franco! He was good, I guess, but the resemblance to his brother, James, was a bit unsettling quite frankly. To tell you the truth, I kept expecting his character to announce that he too is an adult who has gone back to high school in order to corner the student drug market exclusively, but no it turns out he just looks like he's in his mid-20s (he's 26) and has scary eyebrows. Seriously, they frame his eyes so much! In fact, for a film that routinely jokes about the older appearance of its two leads (Tatum is 31, Hill is 28) the filmmakers didn't really go out of their way to surround them with actors that look like actual high schoolers. Only the nerds - including the hilariously named Dax Flame - look their character's age.

15. - CON: Saturday Night Live. This review by Paul Byrnes touches upon an observation that I find so correct that I just have to include it:

The problem with these revisionist projects is that they're not really movies at all, but television sketch comedies with bigger budgets. That allows for some action and car chases and explosions, but the writing is like an extended episode of Saturday Night Live.

This is, essentially, the crux of my issue with the film. The movie of 21 Jump Street doesn't so much feel like a movie that lives and breathes to its own pulse, but instead one that feels like a collection of TV sketch comedy bits having a laugh at popular trends strung together. I can see many bits from this film scattered about an episode of a sketch comedy program - like Dumb Street, but less funny and with fewer Samboy chip references - but then they somehow grabbed the ball and ran with it and in the process ended up becoming a 109-minute film. Nothing particularly wrong with that, but while the filmmakers know they have gone down the revisionist path with more coherent finesse than, say, Bewitched, I'm not sure they should have been so gleefully showboaty about the whole thing. Constantly having to remind that, yes, they are being very clever clever and not just a simple foul-mouthed comedy, but in the process comes off as something altogether different: smug.

16. - CON: I could try and pad this thing out to 21, but I won't. Let's just end this with a grade of C and be done with it. I appreciated the effort, but wished they'd pulled in the reins in on their constant nudging and winking. I'm glad that most people are getting a kick out of this, and if it means Channing Tatum continues to get to improve with each subsequent performance then yay for that, but I found a lot of it rather unappetitising, even if I never was truly angered by the whole enterprise to give it a harsher grade.


Anonymous said...

Since you like Brie Larson, you should check out Tanner Hall if you haven't. She's very good, and sexy, in that.

AbbyRose said...

You have a great website here - I've been reading it for about a year now! I first discovered this through Scream scene by scene. By the way, when are you going to start that up again? It has been a few months, and I miss it!

TonyFilangeri said...

Just saw this movie tonight. I think you're a clittle too harsh on it... I thought it was pretty damn good.

And yes, what AbbyRose said... You gotta finish reviewing Scream 3... and Scream 4!!!

AbbyRose said...

Yes, thank you TonyFilangeri! I am dying to know what you thought of the fourth installment!