21 Jump Street is the place to be
When Schmidt (Jonah Hill) first encounters Molly (Brie Larson) in Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs) revamped 21 Jump Street, he leads off with, “It’s really sad about that kid. He was talented,” hoping to earn some points for sympathizing with a high-school kid who recently overdosed. She responds, “So are you saying if he wasn’t talented it would be less sad?” Schmidt begins to backpedal, flummoxed by Molly’s overthrow of his intentions, only to hear her reassure him that she was only kidding. Later in the film, she confides in him during a telephone conversation: “I never got any stuffed animals growing up. Oh, wait, actually that’s not true. I did. My dad gave me a stuffed puppy the day he bailed on us.” Schmidt is speechless and stunned, once again, but Molly laughingly claims that she’s only kidding, once again. About the stuffed animal, that is, not about her dad leaving. Or is that a joke too? These exchanges are humorous enough on their own, but they’re more significantly illustrative of the film’s strategic banter with its audience. It’s going to feign earnestness then break its poker face and scream “Gotcha!” It’s going to flirt with cliché and cheesiness then commit to revisionism and cleverness. It’s going to be what it’s mocking then mock itself for being so. 21 Jump Street is, in effect, the filmic equivalent of the affable jerk who taps you on your left shoulder when he’s standing on your right. He doesn’t do it because he hates you. He does it because there’s nothing quite like reversed expectations. And, in this case, nothing quite as hilarious either. This movie is dumb enough to be funny but smart enough to know when it’s being dumb. Against all odds, perhaps, it’s not only a spryly winning comedy but a lean piece of comedic brilliance.
As with Schmidt and Molly, this movie wants you to like it. It’s not mainstream comedy’s answer to Godard. It wants laughs and affection, so it’s not afraid to get high and dress up like Peter Pan and prance around at the bemusement of the theater class. But make no mistake: 21 Jump Street is brainier than it appears to be. It’s a nerd dressed in a letterman jacket, pulling elaborate pranks as bystanders chuckle at the payoff rather than the work it took to get there. This is not to say that the film has a sort of disdain for its audience. On the contrary, it is glad you’re laughing. It’s just not above reminding you that it’s harder than it looks. Whether it’s lightly correlating Glee with an increase in high-school tolerance, mocking big-budget explosions then doing one itself, or putting a big star in unrecognizable costume until a “big” reveal, 21 Jump Street is nothing if not culturally aware. When Schmidt is ludicrously, sincerely praying to a “Korean Jesus,” it can’t help but pull back to reveal Jenko cracking up at his misplaced fervor. When Captain Dickson is yelling at his troops, it can’t help but have him point out that he represents a stereotype. In this case, though, he doesn’t experience himself as a stereotype, because, well, he’s actually black and actually angry. Credit goes to directors Lord and Miller, writer Michael Bacall, and stars Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum. They have pulled off the improbable, and they don’t appear to have broken a sweat. 21 Jump Street is silly, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously, which actually makes it less silly. I really wish there were more movies like this one.