Time and tide has turned the semi-serious (heavy on the “semi” part) premise of young-looking cops going undercover to save kids from themselves (and drugs) into a complete and total farce in 21 Jump Street, the film adaptation of a somewhat forgotten ’80s TV series that also happened to be the first big hit on a new network called Fox. This complete and total farce also happens to be the funniest movie of the year so far — and, truly, any and all comedies yet to come will be hard-pressed to top it.
Surprised? We all are. The first trailer for 21 Jump Street didn’t look promising as directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs) seemed to have conjured an awkward satire that didn’t seem quite at home with its R-rated raunch (the movie made a big deal out of releasing a rather lengthy red-band trailer before one without lots of rampant vulgarity). The trailer kind of grew on you after a while, but 21 Jump Street never seemed like it would be anything more than an amusing write-off.
Hooray for the underdogs proving us wrong! Smart, witty and even touching in the way that these kinds of comedies always somehow manage to be by the third act, 21 Jump Street follows the adventures of rookie police officers Morton Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Greg Jenko (Channing Tatum), complete polar opposites (in the exact same way that Hill and Tatum are in real life) who are partnered up on an embarrassing bike patrol beat that dashes their hopes for action and excitement on the job. After a (very) botched arrest, they’re reassigned by their superior officer (Nick Offerman, doing a cop variation on his Ron Swanson character from Parks and Recreation) to 21 Jump Street, an undercover operation based in a condemned church (complete with a Korean Jesus above the altar) and run by the temperamental and eccentric Captain Dickson (Ice Cube, aging nicely and delivering the movie’s funniest line readings). The boys are assigned to the local high school (which happens to be their alma mater), where a powerful new super-drug is being peddled by a suave n’ sleazy senior (Dave Franco, James’ lookalike little brother).
From there, you get the ever-popular description of “hilarity ensues,” but in this case, that hilarity is actually hilarious. Written by Michael Bacall, 21 Jump Street contains the same kind of droll sarcasm, bizarre situations and fourth-wall self-consciousness that made his Scott Pilgrim vs. the World so special (Bacall also wrote the recent Project X, and Jump Street features a house party scene that matches and perhaps even transcends the debauchery of that film). As was also the case in Scott Pilgrim, the supporting players here all get a chance to at least try to steal the show, with Ellie Kemper (Bridesmaids) bringing some uncomfortable laughter as the teacher who’s hot for Jenko (can you blame her? The guy looks like Channing Tatum, after all) and Rob Riggle (recently seen saving the whales in Big Miracle) bringing the alpha male bravado as the sadistic gym teacher. Meanwhile, a lot of the film’s sweetness comes from Brie Larson (who played Envy Adams in Scott Pilgrim), who’s cute as a button as Schmidt’s would-be ladylove.
But what really makes 21 Jump Street work so well is the chemistry between Hill and Tatum. These guys make for the greatest on-screen odd couple in quite some time, both delivering finely-tuned stand-alone comedic performances as well as working beautifully together as a team. Hill, slimmed down a bit from the last time we saw him, finds new variations on his standard nervous yammering and awkward silences that he’s been doing since Superbad; the scene where he tries out for the school play (Peter Pan, natch) is especially quite the tour de force. However, as Hill is already established as a skilled comedian, it’s Tatum who truly surprises with his excellent work — for the first time, he seems completely comfortable in front of the camera, and goddamn if he isn’t funny as he delivers a confident and expertly nuanced performance as the former jock who’s now way out of his element (partly due to a case of mistaken identities that causes the partners to swap personalities). Tatum’s terrific turn bodes well for his starring role this summer as a male stripper in Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike.
Oh yeah, and Johnny Depp, star of the original 21 Jump Street series, makes a cameo appearance — in the most unexpected way possible. I’ll leave it at that.
Anyway, if you’re a fan of “crude and sexual content, pervasive language, drug material, teen drinking and some violence” taken to the level of brilliant pop art, then get yourself down to the station. Indeed, 21 Jump Street is the first must-see comedy of the year.