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It Looks Like Monday Movies Died in a Car Crash and You Never Got Over Us

The action bromance has been made before, as Pineapple Express. The return to high school of a young-looking adult who has unfinished business from the primal scene of American identity-formation? That was Never Been Kissed. (Fast Times at Ridgemont High precedes it–Cameron Crowe went undercover for Rolling Stone to write it–but he left himself out of the resulting screenplay.)

21 Jump Street, then, is the return-to-high-school action bromance, and it would be hard to imagine a better one. In high school, jock Channing Tatum was nerd Jonah Hill’s nemesis; five years later, as police cadets, they are each other’s salvation, each helping the other through the physical and scholastic exams of the Metropolitan City Police Department.

Students of the Apatovian will recognize that such a friendship bears the hallmarks of awkwardness–“awkward in a good, promising way.” (Judd Apatow’s name is not attached to 21 Jump Street, but co-writer and executive producer Jonah Hill carries his torch proudly.) Hill and Tatum bond easily, freed from the high school social norms that structured their adolescent misery. But their relationship needs a test, and their crucible is returning to high school.

The 21 Jump Street setup of young-looking police officers infiltrating high schools to ferret out crime is all the movie takes from its namesake show. As a police captain, Nick Offerman has a fun bit of business with the use of the name, bumping Hill and Tatum down to “a cancelled undercover police program from the ’80s,” reinvented for a new generation because “they’re completely out of ideas.” And we’re off to the races, never looking back except for a witty cameo. A self-consciously angry black commanding officer, played by Ice Cube, sends them in to find a high school drug dealer providing a deadly new substance.

At the high school they infiltrate, mores have shifted such that nerdy Hill fits in with the popular clique, and throwback jock Tatum finds himself exiled to the truly geeky precincts. (It’s not perfectly clear why the truly geeky don’t fit in with the popular clique, but it works.) Since both of them (all of us) have unfinished business with high school, the emotional consequences of this reversal will interfere with their police work. The prepubescent utopia of their unlikely friendship is subject to the reverse stress test as Hill tries to navigate his newfound popularity with his loyalty to his out-group friend, not to mention their mission.

The movie is steadily hilarious and emotionally labile, with satisfying plants and payoffs throughout. The female characters are no worse-developed than in anything else off the Apatow family tree (except of course for Bridesmaids), although Brie Larson is winning (and winningly curvy) as the high school student that Jonah Hill could get but can’t have. As an eco-sensitive popular kid, James Franco’s little brother is the Franco you want to slap more. The movie deftly avoids one prison rape joke (substituting Ice Cube’s threat to visit the officers in prison and do something terrible but not at all rapey to them with a snorkel) but falls into another, almost half-heartedly.

Jonah Hill has been full of surprises for a while now (the Oscar nomination was another one), and 21 Jump Street makes it clear that he’s not actually as much of a substitute for Seth Rogen as he seemed at first. Starting in Freaks & Geeks, Rogen was a dry commentator, almost always playing the palace fool (with his late-season romance with sousaphone player Amy a notable exception). Hill is a much emotionally riskier comic leading man. Oscar was a surprise, but it wasn’t crazy.

What did you see? And what did it bring up for you?

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April 2, 2012 - Posted by | Awkwardness (the book), Monday Movies | , , , , , , , , , , ,

3 Comments

  1. I’m cross-posting because I enjoy this series and it pains me to see it wilting on the vine. Where’s the guy from Family Guy voiced by H. Jon Benjamin when you need him?

    When my wife and I went to see Hunger Games, I tried to make the argument that there would be tons of kids in a matinee. I was not-so-subtly angling to see 21 Jump Street. My efforts failed, but I’m glad to hear it’s worth pushing to see.

    After all, when you rely on committees to make movie choices, it’s always good to show your instincts and sources are sound. I remember one time we went out to dinner with our “movie-going friends” and the women in the party had a hankering to see Cirque de Freak: A Vampire’s Apprentice. We were going in blind – no word of mouth, no IMDB, no Rotten Tomatoes – and they thought it would be bad, but in a fun kind of way. I said, “I just want to go on record as saying this feels to me like an idea that sounds fun going in, but we’ll all regret at midnight when the movie is letting out.” I was right, but I was right like the guy in the horror movie who says, “This is a baaaad idea.”

    Comment by mattintoledo | April 3, 2012

  2. [...] lightly the movie played the relationship between Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. The bromance may have recently taken over action movies, but that’s a recent mode a long-latent (and often explicit) tendency, viz. Butch and [...]

    Pingback by You Get a Series Four De-Atomizer and Monday Movies Gets a Little Midgy Cricket? « The Weblog | April 23, 2012

  3. [...] lightly the movie played the relationship between Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. The bromance may have recently taken over action movies, but that’s a recent mode a long-latent (and often explicit) tendency, viz. Butch and [...]

    Pingback by You Get a Series Four De-Atomizer and Monday Movies Gets a Little Midgy Cricket? « An und für sich | April 23, 2012


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