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Catching Up on 2012: 21 Jump Street

I never watched the TV show 21 Jump Street, and though I was mildly curious about the apparently comedic take on the material in Jonah Hill & Channing Tatum’s 21 Jump Street film, I missed the film in theatres when it was released last spring.  I wasn’t too broken up about that.  But then I was shocked to start noticing 21 Jump Street on quite a few best films of the year lists at the end of 2012.  Had a really great comedy slipped by me?

Well, pardon me for disagreeing with what seems to be the generally accepted viewpoint, but no.

Maybe my hopes had been raised too high after reading so much praise for the film, but while I found 21 Jump Street to be a decently funny film, a comedy classic it is not.

The idea of turning what, to my understanding, was a fairly serious TV show — in which a squad of young-looking cops investigate crimes in schools — into a comedy is an interesting approach.  Perhaps one that is a little disrespectful to the source material, though on the other hand I was pleasantly surprised by the third-act surprise guest appearance in the film that made it clear that the film took place in the same universe as the original show, just set twenty-or-so years later.

I think Jonah Hill has a terrific comedic voice when used well (Superbad and Forgetting Sarah Marshall would be my top two examples) and the idea of pairing him with the tall, buff, movie-star good-looking Channing Tatum is inspired.  The two have a great charisma together, and what works in 21 Jump Street is mostly due to the fun of these two playing off of one another.  (I also was taken by the sweetness inherent in the idea that the jock king of high school and the dorky geek could grow up to be best buds.)

The movie is funny, but rarely did I find it to be laugh-out-loud funny.  It’s a silly action movie, reminiscent of Hot Fuzz in the attempt to combine comedy with an over-the-top, Michael Bay-in- Bad Boys approach to action.  The film is certainly enjoyable but without any particularly brilliant comedic gags or surprises.  The story unfolds as you might expect.  Sent back undercover to high school, Mr. Hill and Mr. Tatum’s characters wind up reliving their own high school days, just from the opposite viewpoint: Mr. Hill’s character is suddenly cool, while Mr. Tatum’s character falls in with the geeks.  The two men start off working together, then have a fight, then reunite in time for an action finish in which they save the day.  It’s a simple story, but then again plenty of great comedies have been built on the structure of a simple story.  But I never felt that the film was able to launch itself from that simple structure towards anything greater.

I feel badly speaking too critically of 21 Jump Street, because it’s a totally inoffensive, pleasant movie, one that is funny enough for much of its run-time.  I can easily see how one could have a fun time watching this film.  But it never hit the heights of comedy that I was expecting.  The whole thing felt a little too by-the-numbers to me.  Oh well.

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