21 Jump Street yields three solid chuckles in one-hundred-nine minutes of running time, which is simply inexcusable.
Though engineered by human beings (directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller), 21 might as well be a factory-made blueprint of Starsky & Hutch, Hollywood’s last nod to kitschy television shows.
Take a cult T.V. cop show (the late eighties-early nineties Fox series 21 Jump Street, which put Johnny Depp on the map). Cast two comic stars in the lead roles as barely competent undercover police partners; if only one is available, make the co-star a one-note straight man (Jonah Hill, who co-wrote, gives himself the lion’s share of the laugh lines; critics are calling rom-com beefcake Channing Tatum an unexpected comic marvel, but to me he just registered like a poor man’s Mark Wahlberg).
Line your film with Saturday Night Live/FunnyorDie veterans in bit parts (Chris Parnell, Rob Riggle). Finally, load it with homophobic/race-baiting humor (to attract dumb young people) and jokes that deconstruct said racy humor (to attract slightly less dumb young people).
Spazzy Schmidt (Hill) and meathead Jenko (Tatum) are former high-school nemeses that inexplicably become friends at the police academy. Hill is book-smart but uncoordinated, Tatum is impulsive. After failing to mirandize a drug dealer, the two get demoted to 21 Jump Street, a training facility for inexperienced cops who are assigned to infiltrate high-school drug dealers.
When they complain, their grumpy captain (Ice Cube) tells them to “suck a dick”; later, he threatens to put large objects in their rectum. If you find nothing funnier than gay sadomasochism, fear not: there’s plenty more material like this to come.
But 21 Jump Street wants to have its homosexual panic cake and eat it, too. There’s a schizoid sequence where Jenko punches out a gay teen whom he profiles as a thug. The kid thinks Jenko is a hatemonger, and Schmidt blurts out, “Well, if he decided not to hit you because you were gay, isn’t that homophobic?” When the two wind up in the principal’s office, he bemoans that he’s tired of “gay black kids being punched around here.” Are Hill and co-writer Michael Bacall making fun of gays or gay-bashing or both at the same time? I don’t think they know themselves.
When they invade the school, Jenko expects to be popular again and Schmidt expects infamy. Predictably, the opposite happens: the popular kids are now eco-friendly dweebs who sell synthetic drugs (this is forced cleverness, as jocks will never be unpopular at public high-schools).
Hill bumbles his way into the drug dealer clique while Tatum warms up to explosive-loving, computer-hacking nerds. To appear authentically adolescent, they throw a party filled with drugs and scantily-clad women and random violence; they take drugs themselves (in the sequence that provides two of the film’s three chuckles) and undergo an extended hallucinogenic trip through orchestra class, algebra and track meets.
In a lame stab at symbolism, Hill winds up playing the lead in a high school rendition of “Peter Pan”; he’s obsessed with high school and can’t grow up, you see. Meanwhile, Hill finds romance with button-cute high school student Brie Larson, but that plays second fiddle to the über-male camaraderie. Even in a movie as willfully stupid and self-mocking as this one, the misogyny is galling. A redhead chemistry teacher is given no character traits except misguided lust for Jenko. Later, a drunk prom-going girl fellating Jenko in the backseat of a limo is called a “hot slut,” then unceremoniously dumped on the sidewalk.
But what does it matter? 21 Jump Street won’t reinstate feminism in the American comedy, but it won’t really harm anyone either; it’s too gutless and feather-brained for that distinction.