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March 18, 2012

21 Jump Street

21jump-posterHollywood Shuffle
The Plague of Remakes and Updates Drags On
By Cole Smithey

A scattershot hodgepodge of scatological and penile humor, “21 Jump Street” owes less to Johnny Depp’s 1987 television launch pad series than it does to a mentality of lowest common denominator. Here is a pathetic comedy that rarely evinces even a chuckle.

With a sequel already planned, “21 Jump Street” is one more in a long list of open-handed insults from Hollywood presumably aimed at puerile audiences too dumb to know better. Product placement is predictably de rigeur. Giving a character a permanent prop of snack chips is just plain dumb. It doesn’t help that Ice Cube delivers a characteristically amateurish performance as Captain Dickson, the anger-prone police chief in charge of an undercover team of “Justin Bieber—Miley Cyrus-looking-mutts” working out of the “Aroma of Jesus Christ” church. A “Korean” Jesus Christ oversees the pews from his life-size crucifix. I suppose the subtext here is, if the comedy stinks, you know who to blame.

Jonah Hill slums it, following his Oscar-nominated turn in “Moneyball,” as Schmidt, a smartenheimer police academy embarrassment assigned with his cop pal Jenko (Channing Tatum) to infiltrate a high school pretending to be students. As the story goes, the two guys used to be rivals at opposite ends of the social spectrum when they actually went to high school together a decade or more ago. But now they have discovered an ideal atmosphere to capitalize on one another’s strengths. Never mind that Hill and Tatum are closer to 35 than 17. Jenko’s academic weaknesses are exposed in his inability to recite the Miranda warning that anyone with a television in the last 50 years knows better than the Lord’s Prayer.

Jenko states, “You have the right to remain an attorney.” Officer Schmidt sheepishly supports his partner’s claim. He tells his chief, “You do have the right to be an attorney if you want to.” If this kind of asymmetrical humor sounds funny, know that it represents one of the film’s few funny moments.

There’s a new – potentially lethal — synthetic drug going around the school that Schmidt and Jenko are assigned to track back to its source. James Franco’s younger brother Dave has the misfortune of being cast as the school’s drug-dealing kingpin. From the looks of it, he won’t be giving his older sibling any competition for many years to come.

The closest the comedy gets to topical occurs during Freudian-slip overtures by Jenko’s female high school teacher Ms. Griggs (Ellie Kemper). She wants to examine Jenko’s “chest” more than his “test.”

The film’s primary conceit resides in turning high school student stereotypes upside-down. Eco-friendly, folk music-loving, tolerance-loving nerds are now the “cool” kids, while bullying jocks are pathetic creeps to be humiliated into submission. This turnabout comes more as a shock to Jenko, whose reliance on his once successful old-school ways hit with a resounding thud whenever he tries to rely on old habits. Schmidt, on the other hand, finds that his shy and awkward approach to school life has its rewards. He develops a crush on a girl named Molly (Brie Larson) who is more than responsive to his understated charms.

Hailing from the animation universe, dual-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (“Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs”) don’t so much direct as bear witness to a series of pedestrian chase sequences filled with one-dimensional characters. The awful thing about movies like “21 Jump Street” is that it has a built-in audience. Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill have each made respectable comedies and dramas that lead unsophisticated audiences to follow them wherever they go, even if it’s into a miasmic mess such as “21 Jump Street.”

Still, a Johnny Depp cameo comes late in the film to remind audiences just how inferior this rendition of “21 Jump Street” is to the television show that gave Depp the room to develop as an actor. It goes to show how far Hollywood has regressed. Depp’s brief appearance also reminds you of how much better an actor he is, than much of “21 Jump Street’s” other onscreen talent. Schmidt and Jenko may as well have been sent to investigate drug dealing at an elementary school. Comedies don’t get much more remedial than this. I’m already dreading “21 Jump Street 2.” Hopefully, they’ll change writers, directors, and switch out Ice Cube for someone who can at least act.

Rated R. 109 mins. (D) (One Star - out of five/no halves)


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