21 Jump Street isn’t really a remake of anything. It’s not an adaptation, it’s barely even an homage to the classic television series of the late ’80s. If anything, it’s a tongue-in-cheek parody of it, like a 100-minute Funny Or Die video that stumbled drunkenly into your multiplex. There’s none of the seriousness, the welling teen angst and tastefully gritty drama that made the series so popular. Instead it’s a goofy, profane, and decidedly not profound send up of not just “21 Jump Street,” but of cop movies in general. It throws a couple of bones “Jump Street’s” way to give it the barest scent of nostalgia, but that nostalgia quickly evaporates.
Once that memory dissipates, what are we left with? We’re left with a film that’s more Pineapple Express than “21 Jump Street,” except with the roles of the leads flipped. Officers Jenko (Channing Tatum) and Schmidt (Jonah Hill) are two dimwitted rookie cops who joined the force seeking excitement and instead found tedium. Relegated to bicycle patrols in public parks, they daydream of a life of action, and their overzealous idiocy results in their being transferred into a previously defunct project wherein detectives are sent into high schools to try to stop adolescent crime. You know, like on that show, “21 Jump Street”? In fact, their new headquarters is down on Jump Street. You know, like on that show? That’s pretty much where the resemblances end, and from there on, it becomes an occasionally fun, but frequently tired exercise in comedic bromance, where Jenko and Schmidt stumble their way through a series of misadventures, trying to get to the heart of a crime ring that’s bringing a new synthetic drug into the school.
The comparison to Pineapple Express wasn’t made casually. The resemblance to David Gordon Green’s film are so marked that it’s almost outright plagiarism. There’s two lackwit buddies, an inappropriate romance with a high school girl (in this case, played by an adorable Brie Larson), a plot surrounding a new drug, an establishment figure as a bad guy, and a ton of homoerotic undertones between the leads. Hell, James Franco’s brother plays a role in the film. 21 Jump Street plays with the conventions of the genre, trying to subvert its betters by playing up stock characters and broad stereotypes. Ice Cube plays their angry black lieutenant, except that he’s completely self-aware of the fact that he’s an angry black lieutenant. The rookie cops play up the fish-out-of-water aspect by showing how much high school has changed since they were kids, and now inexplicably the (less than before) rotund Hill is the popular kid, while the lunkish Tatum becomes the dork. Unfortunately, much of this falls flat as the film shoots and misses on most of its meta humor, making some of the scenes of satire more painful than funny.
That’s not to say that the film is a total loss. Its opening scenes are genuinely funny, and you’ll find yourself guffawing on more than one occasion. Hill and Tatum have a surprisingly sweet chemistry together, and their well-meaning ignoramuses are actually quite enjoyable. In fact, what I was most stunned by was our man Charming Potato himself — he’s funny in this. I don’t mean point-and-laugh funny; I mean he’s got some genuine comedic timing and he plays off Hill with a mischievous sense of silliness that took me aback. It may well be that this is the niche Tatum belongs in — that of a cute, sweet, but dumb-as-a-sack-of-gravel guy without pretense or, well, any real depth. The duo go through the expected cycle — they start out as opposites, then are united through common cause, then become friends, then best friends, then they fight and bicker and miss each other and eventually are brought back together through another common cause. Like I said, it’s not without its subtext. The problem is that it’s occasionally a tiresomely recycled subtext.
The film’s writing is a mixed bag, but when it hits, it hits hard and fast. While it frequently aims too high (or low, I suppose, depending on your point of view) when it’s trying for satire, when it shifts into straightforward madcap comedy, it’s solid. There’s little gross-out humor, although plenty of hysterically coarse language, and I found myself drawn into moments unexpectedly. Unfortunately, it quickly drowns that goodwill by trying a little too hard to be a little too smart, and frankly, its writers never quite hit their marks. Interestingly, Mark Bacall wrote the screenplay, and one can see how that odd mix came to play — he wrote Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and Project X, two wildly different films that suffer from a similar imbalance, wherein there are moments of genuine greatness that get subverted by those that simply aren’t as good as they may have looked on the page. The directors are a different story — Phil Lord and Chris Miller are responsible for the enjoyable Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs as well as the utterly weird-yet-hilarious cult hit “Clone High.” Yet there’s little of the originality of those two entries present here, and they’re instead shackled by the film’s devotion to misplaced meta-humor, tired tropes, and misappropriated nostalgia.
Perhaps the film’s greatest crime is wasting a brilliant supporting cast. Nick Offerman, Ellie Kemper, Brie Larson, and Jake Johnson all play smaller parts, and all of them feel underused if not outright squandered. 21 Jump Street is the mother of all mixed bag comedies, with some cast members who nail it, some who miss it, and some who are never given a chance. It’s not unlike the film itself, which sometimes could be howlingly funny, and managed to eke out two enjoyable performances from its leads, but is ultimately undone by a tepid story and a vague sense of purposeless brought about, strangely, by simply trying too hard.