I don’t think there’s much novel about the idea that high school sucks. And movies about high school sucking are common enough to be their own genre, at this point. How are you going to take something so well trodden and make it worthwhile? In short: add some buddy cop. That’s the theory of 21 Jump Street, the newest film from directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (directors of the solidly underrated Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs) and screenwriter Michael Bacall (the amazing Scott Pilgrim vs The World and the probably terrible Project X).
Adapting the 80s TV show of the same name, 21 Jump Street opens on two very different high school students in the heady past of 2001. Schmidt (Jonah Hill) is a geeky loser, constantly teased by nearly everyone, including Jenko (Channing Tatum) a jock who barely keeps from getting expelled for poor grades. The two end up years later at the same police academy, where in elaborate montage they realize that they need each other’s help to become cops: Schmidt constantly tutors Jenko, who acts as a coach to get Schmidt through the physical tests. Soon, they become cops, and get to live out their dreams of being badasses … as bicycle cops.
One fiasco of a drug bust later, where Jenko fails to remember to read the perp their rights, and Schmidt and Jenko are the laughing stock of the police department. Which gets them shipped off to an undercover operation at 21 Jump Street, where young cops act like high school students to bust crime. Jenko and Schmidt are sent in together to a school that’s dealing heavy drugs, with orders to insert themselves into the drug line to work their way up to discovering the dealer.
What follows is part buddy cop movie and part bromance version of Never Been Kissed, as quickly Jenko and Schmidt find themselves living the life the other one lead when they were in high school. A lot has changed in seven years, and now all the popular kids are the smart, progressive, eco-friendly types. Jenko blames Glee, before getting shuffled off to the nerds, who actually aren’t that different but certainly less persecuted. Schmidt, on the other hand, finds himself suddenly surrounded by people who are on his level, and they’re all open and cool. He even quickly falls for the kind of girl he would never have thought he could get in high school, Molly (Brie Larson). Unfortunately, Molly’s sometimes boyfriend Eric (Dave Franco, who looks a disconcerting amount like his more famous brother) is seemingly the top drug dealer, and Schmidt quickly gets entangled with being part of the popular elite in school and having the life he only dreamed of as a kid, pushing a wedge between him and Jenko when Jenko begins to realize that for people who weren’t him, high school was terrible because of people like him.
What’s most interesting is how earnest most of this high school stuff is. The movie seems to have a firm grasp of the complex balance of high school, which is often great fun but sometimes overwhelmingly terrible, many times seemingly at the same time. The emotional swings that involve a bunch of teenagers on the cusp of adulthood quickly overwhelm even trained (if poorly) cops, sucking them back into that world. A lot if this relies upon the nuance of the leads, who both do pretty amazing work. Channing Tatum has a reputation of being a bit of a wooden oaf, but I’ve completely come around on him because of this movie. With the right material, he can express in a way that’s surprisingly complex, and he’s got great comedic timing that relies on his oafishness.
The same is true of Jonah Hill, who breaks out of his typical geeky loser role in the narrative, becoming something of a total dick, but in a way that is easy to understand and empathize with. He doesn’t ever go too far, walking the tightrope of audience sympathy while still managing to mess up nearly everything in his sudden realization of undiscovered potential. It’s the kind of personality dynamic that’s much more interesting than the typical straight man/loose cannon of the genre, and it’s definitely the highlight of the movie.
And then everything blows up.
I’m not kidding about that, either. 21 Jump Street starts out as a truly funny, interestingly complex high school comedy, but quickly the second half of the movie begins to have more and more action sequences, including an extended car chase and a big shootout. Unfortunately for this movie, the action isn’t particularly inspired, and compared to the laughs is a dull way to end out the movie. There’s 2/3 of a great comedy here, and 1/3 that struggles to fulfill the other half of the concept, and it’s unfortunate because it derails what would otherwise sit well up with the likes of Hot Fuzz for modern cop-comedy mashups.
I think what really hurts it, especially in the last third, is that the rest of the movie had seemed so earnest. For a movie with a blatantly stupid premise, it seemed very intent on keeping the world and characters real and relatable. But at the end, it seems to throw that out in favor of striving to be awesome. That’s fine, I suppose, and the body count is impressive for a movie that exercised a lot of restraint early on, but it’s thematically troubling. The movie seems to care a lot about its characters right up to the point where they have to put up or shut up, and then they blink. This is especially noticeable in the relationship between Schmidt and Molly. The weirdness of rooting for a 25 (or more) year old to get with a high school student notwithstanding, she suddenly is totally okay with him having lied to her the whole time.
It’s not the kind of thing that derails the movie, I don’t think, and it ends with a ton of narrative momentum. It’s the kind of movie when the credits show up you want to punch your fist in the air and go “Yeah, that was awesome!” But after the adrenaline rush leaves, I can’t help but feel somehow cheated by that resolution. It’s not a bad movie, and it’s a solid comedy, but I feel like it narrowly missed being something much more than the sum of its parts, and unlike Jenko and Schmidt, the movie doesn’t get a second chance to make it all perfect.