Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Demise of the Real B Movie: 21 Jump Street

Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star in 21 Jump Street

If David Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo reminded me why I wanted to become a film critic in the first place, Phil Lord and Chris Miller's 21 Jump Street reminded me why I quit. A few weeks back, grindhouse genius Roger Corman said, approximately, that Hollywood had destroyed the low budget, independently made crappy, but fun, B and C movies when they started making them themselves and then lavishing extravagant budgets on them. 21 Jump Street is a case in point. The picture cost $42 million to make, plus marketing costs, and I came out of it wondering what they had spent the money on. It sure hadn't been on production values, because the film looks okay, but it's nothing special. It wasn't for the script which borrows a bit from Beverly Hills Cop and 48 Hrs., puts some ironic makeup on it (it's like putting lipstick on a pig, but never mind) and pretends it's hip and with it. It wasn't in the action sequences which, again, while competent, were also nothing special. And it sure wasn't because the leads were making $20 million each. Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill, again, are okay (and Tatum actually might have some light comedy chops), but it's ... it's just so drab. Is this the best we can do with all that money? Really?

Where's the real wit, smart dialogue, funny situations and unexpected moments? I, at the very least, expected the film to have some of the anarchistic fun of Animal House or Rock 'n Roll High School. 21 Jump Street hints that it might be heading there until it turns tail and circles back to tired penis and shit jokes in its few lame attempts to garner laughs. And it wasn't just me being the jaded critic. Sure the audience laughs at these gags, but since the film never finds a consistent comic rhythm, you don’t get any sense that the audience was really having a good time watching this “comedic” redo of the old Johnny Depp '80s TV series. By the end, the laughs pretty much died off and the crowd left without much chatter. In fact, the only time any anarchy came close to hitting the screen was during the closing credits with a series of images, some from the movie, some not, cut together in a random, but somewhat entertaining manner.

But what was the film about besides being a redo of an old TV show? The basic premise is Schmidt (Hill), a wimp in school in 2005, who is constantly bullied and humiliated by people like Jenko (Tatum). Schmidt's your typical genius nerd who's a bit tubby and can't get a date for the prom without being embarrassed by the girl he asks out. Jenko is your typical jock who has breezed through school on his charm (it sure isn't his brains). However, Jenko has failed so badly that he is banned from attending the prom (although how he graduates if he failed everything is beyond me). Both can't go to the prom for different reasons. Slam cut to six years later. Both are now in the police academy. (Again, if Schmidt is such a brainiac, why does he need a job as a beat cop? Again, beyond me.) Jenko remembers Schmidt and cozies up to him to tap into his smarts in order to pass the academy exams. Blah blah blah, they become friends and partners as bicycle cops. Boring job, no fun, etc etc etc. They think they've made a breakthrough when they bust some biker (as in motorcycles) drug dealers, but Jenko is so dumb he cannot remember the Miranda rights, so the criminal walks. As punishment, Jenko and Schmidt are sent to an undercover unit to infiltrate a high school. Their boss is Ice Cube, playing a foul-mouthed captain. What? Ice Cube swearing? How hilarious.

They return to school as “brothers” and are forced to live with Schmidt's overbearing parents. A mix up occurs at the school, and Schmidt is put in athletics and Jenko into sciences. Hilarity ensues. Their purpose is to find a drug pusher who's a student, but more importantly they must determine who the big cheese dealer behind the pusher is. The joke here is that in 2012 it is the tree huggers and politically correct types who are the cool kids, not the jocks. It turns out that the drug pusher is one of the tree huggers, Eric Molson (played by Dave Franco, James' younger brother). There is more plot to follow but it’s mostly forgettable.

Brie Larson in United States of Tara
There is one, yes one, rather good performance and that's by the unknown-to-me Brie Larson (United States of Taraas Molson's friend and Schmidt's maybe girlfriend. She seems to think she's in a real film and is perfectly believable as a shy 18-year-old who’s trying to fit in. (The filmmakers are clear about her age so we don't think Schmidt's a potential paedophile when he sort of makes a move on her.) Her performance serves one purpose: it is a good calling card for better work in the future.

21 Jump Street almost put me to sleep on more than one occasion with its indifferent pacing and trying-way-too-hard-to-be-cool contrived looseness. At other times, it creeped me out, especially in the scene where Jenko and Schmidt weapon-up as they strap on their firearms because they think there will be a big final showdown with the Big Bad at the prom. The only thing that went through my mind as we see two “teenagers” strap on an arsenal of weaponry before they head off to school was Columbine, and I don't think that's the vibe they were going for.

I laughed once in this film, and it was a running joke about gas trucks not exploding like they normally do in chase scenes in action movies. The payoff got a good laugh out of me, probably because I was desperate for something. I also got a mild chuckle out of Depp's cameo as a cop who is still undercover, but that was really it. If this is the best Hollywood can do with comedies or B movies, at least leave the latter to the geniuses, like Corman, who know how to take trash and make it passably entertaining.

David Churchill is a critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information (where you can order the book, but only in traditional form!). And yes, he’s begun the long and arduous task of writing his second novel.

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