The title 21 Jump Street probably means very little to most people under 30, particularly in Britain, where the 1980s Johnny Depp-starring cop show, in which patently adult police officers posed as teenagers to solve crime, never caught on in quite the way it did in America. Certainly it’s no cultural touchstone for ‘The Kids’, who make up much of the target audience for this. Honestly, it doesn’t really matter if you’ve never even heard the name before. Nostalgic familiarity is of very minor importance in enjoying a film that is often inspired, frequently insane and always very, very funny.
21 Jump Street is a very weird comedy. It’s sort of ‘Michel Gondry makes a high-school movie with Judd Apatow’ weird. That’s a good kind of weird, but it’s weird nevertheless. The story itself is perfectly normal: two very different cops (Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill) are sent undercover to bust a high-school drugs ring, which requires them to pretend to be teenagers and relive their school years, during which they hated each other. The comedy is abnormal. It covers very broad slapstick (people deliberately running over each other with cars), to nakedly meta (particularly a long speech in which a character complains about nobody doing anything original anymore, instead just recycling old stuff nobody remembers), to odd for the sake of odd (Korean Jesus). It throws jokes at the screen with such frenetic frequency that some inevitably won’t stick, but more than enough do, even ones that don’t make much in the way of actual sense. By the time you’ve realised that you’ve just laughed at a situation you don’t wholly understand it’s gone and you’re on to the next one.
Hill co-wrote with Michael Bacall (Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World) and they make some very astute choices in their depiction of high school. It’s not the typical 40-year-old’s view of school that we usually see in movies, where all the popular kids are jocks or cheerleaders, anyone who cares even remotely about anything is a nerd, and somewhere there’s a grouchy head teacher who has plenty of time to dedicate to busting just one kid. It’s far more intelligently observed than that. The cool kids (led by Dave Franco, who is smartly, gently emerging from his elder brother’s shadow, and the adorable Brie Larson) actually care about their future and don’t spend their time seeking people to bully. One of them is gay and nobody gives a damn. There’s a very small but brilliant moment where a character expresses dismay when someone phones her, because she “only ever texts” unless it’s her mother. The science kids are still seen as desperately sad, but then some things are just eternal.
While the laughs work in the majority of cases, it is quite scrappy in terms of story. This has the feel of a film that improvised for hours and then worked out later how to piece it all together. There are the vital story beats that it knows to hit, but in-between these it veers off in myriad directions, seemingly sometimes unsure itself of what this bit is about. When it goes somewhere funny that’s not an issue, but you do occasionally want to just give it a shove back onto the rails. It’s so antic that some scenes appear just a few moments and one more screaming argument away from tipping over into a mess, though thankfully it always pulls back just in time.
Of the leads, it’s surprising that it’s Tatum who stands out. He’s always been a capable actor but hasn’t really been the standout in anything since A Guide To Recognising Your Saints. This is quite possibly the performance of his career. He proves himself to be a skilled, loose comedian. His simple-minded character, who winds up posing as a science-brain through a very silly mix-up, is thoroughly charming and, possibly by accident, the real heart of the movie, as he realises he’s better than just the dumb jock. Hill is called upon to be more obnoxious as a guy getting a second chance at the popularity A-list after spending his teenage years as the permanent outsider. It’s something Hill knows how to do well — this role isn’t vastly removed from his turn in Superbad — though there is a stretch towards the end of the film where he becomes so self-important and unlikable that it pretty much kills the comedy. The Hill and Tatum double act is one that has many reasons why it shouldn’t work, yet, like the film around them, it’s so inherently mismatched that its oddness becomes its greatest asset.