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?
In Moneyball, the screen adaptation of the Michael Lewis non-fiction book of the same name, Brad Pitt plays Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A’s. He’s had a near-miss season that resulted in the poaching of his top three players by teams with fatter payrolls. With the help of a 25-year-old Yale economics major named Peter Brand (Jonah Hill, based on real-life Paul DePodesto) he assembles a team based on unsentimental number-crunching, flying in the face of his scouts’ folk wisdom about what makes a great player, e.g. “He’s the kind of guy, he walks into a room, his cock’s already been there for two minutes.” The rest is baseball history, of which I know not a goddamn thing, but suffice it to say that the rough-diamond/ugly-duckling A’s more than hold their own against the Scrooge McDucks of Major League Baseball.
Steven Soderbergh was in charge of the adaptation for a while; reportedly, his rewrite of the Steve Zaillian script mixed documentary footage into Zaillian’s dramatic narrative, and Sony eventually pushed him off of the project. Aaron Sorkin then rewrote Zaillian’s script, and director Bennett Miller shot elements of both versions. (Screenwriting trivia: the designation “Screenplay by Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin” means that Sorkin’s work followed Zaillian’s; a screenplay by “Steve Zaillian & Aaron Sorkin” would mean that the two wrote as a team.) Sorkin’s influence feels present but reined in — it’s a movie about the transformative power of ideas, but the transformations are grinding and stoic, not enacted through cataclysms of persuasive speechifying.
The “sabremetric” approach extinguishes ineffability and sentimentality from player evaluation, both of which are central to baseball movies and have a good hand in storytelling in general. Almost all the players are reduced to their statistical importance; the conflict becomes about whether Beane will be allowed to deploy them as the chess pieces he’s come to see them as. Enjoyably, the movie underplays this conflict rather than making up for its aridity with operatic you-can’t-handle-the-truth-ifying (although Beane does throw a lot of things). Philip Seymour Hoffman’s team manager’s sustained battle with Beane is a gentlemanly war of attrition, with each man moving against the other as if playing a chess match through the mail.
There are two gestures that are repeated three times each and become, in their way, central to the story that Moneyball is telling. One is the presentation of a monetary offer on a piece of paper. “We believe in your son’s ability, and we thing the offer on this piece of paper represents the strength of that belief,” a scout tells young Billy and his parents in a flashback; that same moment gets replayed once, and the gesture is restaged as a final victory, an offer from the owner of a rival club to Billy as an adult that validates the results of his moneyball season.
The second triply played gesture is the liquidation of labor, in this case letting a player know he’s been traded or sent down to the minor leagues. Beane tells Brand it’s part of the job, and teaches him how to do it swiftly: “Would you rather get one bullet in the head, or five in the chest and bleed to death?” Brand delivers the news to one player, and Beane to two others. None reacts with more than a minor show of dismay.
Moneyball is a capitalist underdog story mixed with a Taylorist triumph: Beane, whose baseball career was a classic case of high expectations and dismal results, prevails by rationalizing and disenchanting baseball.
Chris Pratt’s catcher-turned-first-baseman Scott Hatteberg is the only player who gets a baseball romance. Because of nerve damage, he’s a bargain to sign (the ne plus ultra of moneyball) and he can no longer catch, forcing him to learn to play first base. His fear and his ultimate heroic performance are showcased, and he’s as enjoyable to watch here as he is on Parks & Recreation, where his optimistic exertions have made him my favorite character. But Moneyball is not a movie about baseball players.