Film Review: 21 Jump Street

Shoulda, coulda, woulda been fun. But it ain't.

While walking the red carpet at this year’s Oscars, nominee Jonah Hill told an interviewer that his next film would be 21 Jump Street, “although I don’t think I’ll be nominated for that one.” It was the understatement of the year. Co-produced by Hill, who also contributed to the story, and co-star Channing Tatum, this piece of crassly conceived commercial offal does much to undermine the goodwill the stars have worked so hard to build up in films like Moneyball and The Vow.

They’ve updated the 1980s TV show—although some might say reduced it—as the whitewashed film is missing the presences of the Asian and black characters originally played by Dustin Nguyen and Holly Robinson Peete (although she does make a blink-and-you-miss-it cameo appearance). Now, Hill plays an awkward nerd named Schmidt and Tatum is the cool but dumb jock Jenko, who were alienated polar opposites in high school but, years later, find themselves teamed together as supposedly hilarious, bumbling rookie cops. Their mission, delivered by their superior, Captain Dickson (Ice Cube, abrasively overdoing “angry black man”), is to disguise themselves as student brothers and infiltrate a high school overrun with the drug-dealing ways of Eric (Dave Franco, James’ brother), who poses as a crunchy-granola green type.

Michael Bacall is the credited screenwriter, and although his sexual orientation shouldn’t matter, it is undeniable that the script is pocked, nay, brimming, with homoerotic references looking to be jokes. “We’ll beat your dicks off!” our stars threaten a bunch of bewildered perps, when not constantly grabbing at each other or dry-humping for an easy yock. There’s a stench of easy misogyny as well: Twice, women get pushed out of their own cars to sprawl curbside and, at one point, Hill sucker-punches an older neighbor lady. The actual important women’s roles are filled by wearisome types ranging from dimwitted, clueless blonde love interest for Schmidt (Brie Larson) to ragingly horny, clueless teacher (Ellie Kemper) to Schmidt’s smotheringly clueless mother (Caroline Aaron).

And, of course, the whole thing hinges on the heroes’ ability to impersonate teenagers, not easy when Hill’s drastic weight loss has had the accompanying effect of aging his face (see: Al Roker) and Tatum’s eye bags have always been an essential element in keeping this actor from being too Abercrombie perfect. The film relies a lot on the actors’ breezy ad-lib skills, which are far from shining here. The other kids have also been “aged up,” so when Franco scoffs at Tatum, “You look 40!”, the joke fails because he looks at least 30. There’s some humor gleaned from the pair’s bewilderment at the changes in high-schoolers since their day: all this concern for the Earth and scholastic striving when, for them, nothing was once cooler than simply not trying. But even these fillips become strained, as when Tatum clocks a student who turns out to be not only black, but gay, and everyone sputters loudly about the absolute incorrectness of it.

Yes, his Eminence, Johnny Depp (the TV show’s original star), pops up in a none-too-surprising appearance which, like so much else here, was meant to be funnier than it actually is. This is the kind of tediously ironic romp which has you, like Schmidt and Jenko, waiting for explosions that never happen during the interminable chase scenes and excruciating climax—in which another villain (unappetizingly hammy Rob Riggle, as a nefarious teacher) literally gets his penis shot off and has to pick it up with his own teeth, because no one else wants to. Hilarious, no? No.