Toward the outset of the inevitable 21 Jump Street, a police chief—played with typically laid-back imperiousness by Nick Offerman—mentions assigning our two heroes (Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum) to a program that’s been revamped from the ‘80s. No one has any new ideas, he deadpans, and the hope is no one notices the concept has been microwaved. Of course, making a po-mo joke about conceptual laziness is in itself lazy, and thus far it seems this ‘80s revamp will be par for course in a genre whose predominant adjective is “half-assed.” As it turns out, 21 Jump Street is a rarity, proving even more relentlessly inventive than it is faithless to its dodgy source.
For starters, the creative team (including Hill, co-credited with the story) has turned the early-Fox drama where Tiger Beat poster boys—one of them a secret serious thespian—pretended to have true grit into an all-out comedy. Moreover, they’ve made the narrative engagingly snaky. Hill and Tatum, who graduate from police academy only to be assigned dispiriting park bike duty, wind up relocated to a program for undercover high school narcs solely because they were so overjoyed by their first bust they forgot to issue Miranda Rights. Once in school, the pair accidentally mix up their fake names, meaning Hill suffers through track and field and misty-eyed drama class, while Tatum gets stuck with nerd classes. While the once-dorky Hill gets to retry high school, wooing a (just-of-age) hottie (Brie Larson), Tatum—shocked to discover his slacker-and-nerds concept of school has, thanks to Glee, been replaced by comic books, environmentalism and two-strap backpack-wearing—spends the movie bro’ing down with science dorks.
Steven Soderbergh has dedicated two of his (alleged) final films to Tatum, and 21 Jump Street reveals that’s not as crazy as it sounds: much like Brad Pitt, beneath this square-jawed meat slab lies a sly, weird comic mind. My favorite running gag has Tatum excelling at science while never realizing it’s not pronounced “Ap” Chemistry.” This beefcake improbably out-funnies Hill, and his low-key-amusing work stands in contrast to a film whose operating principle is to never let the film be not entertaining. Every scene has been conceived so as to include one wacky/off-kilter/unique element; no scene can be cliched, or if it is, it’s to be tweaked with sarcasm or, better, some unexpected element. This can lead to shrillness; needless to say, a car chase that boasts Hill clad in a Peter Pan leotard is trying too hard. But in a genre that rarely tries, trying too hard just about evens things out. And besides, funny is funny.
Jonah Hill is thin. You’ve likely read about the 30 pounds the Judd Apatow regular—and now Brad Pitt’s co-star in Moneyball—recently shed. But it’s even more shocking in person, doubly so if you interviewed him four years ago.