As Jonah Hill and Michael Cera in “Superbad” reminded us, Hollywood has a long, goofy tradition of hiring post-teenaged actors to portray teenaged characters. Hill and Channing Tatum together in “21 Jump Street” suggest a corollary tendency to make age-inappropriateness itself the center of our attention.
An irreverent movie comedy rehash of a premise taken way too seriously by late-1980s TV, it’s also a fun-house mirror for a deranged society in which the less you look like a teenager, the more amusing it apparently is to act like one. The question of how we got here has many answers, but one thing to remember about the late 1980s is that it was a time of just enough amiably hysterical anti-drug conservatism to posit the narc as ultimate bad-boy outsider. The premise that baby-faced cops go undercover in high schools, as mounted by a then-fledgling Fox network, somehow could launch Johnny Depp’s career.
A hooky but untenable absurdity, in other words, and the new movie can’t resist playing it as such. This “21 Jump Street” gets right to work, whisking its duo of rivals-cum-buds right along from high school to police academy to a genteel bike patrol, promptly botched, and then back to school, now preposterously undercover. (Wait for that easy zinger about how police departments, like entertainment companies, jadedly recycle their old ideas.) There, armed with only a bond of mutual incompetence, they uncomfortably discover that recent pieties of political correctness have upended expected social codes. Thus Hill’s chubby sensitive thespian stands tall at last on the precipice of popularity, with Tatum’s blunt beefcake jock consigned to further schooling from a fringe of science geeks.
“Glee” is duly blamed, and the man-boys proceed with their mission particulars. These include negotiations with a foul-mouthed boss played by Ice Cube, a lust-crazed teacher played by Ellie Kemper, a grounded love interest played by Brie Larson, and a smarmy cool-kid drug dealer played by James Franco’s little brother Dave. The drug is synthetic, but its name, HolyFuckingShit, seems wholly organic to users’ experiences.
Unexpectedly more than merely another crass exercise in raiding the dusty cupboards of pre-existing programming, “21 Jump Street” offers at least as much personality as should be expected from a film conceived by Hill, scripted by Michael Bacall, also of “Project X”and “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” and directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller of “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs.” Some movies, especially comedies, can seem collaborated to death, but this one actually benefits from its slapdash pluralism.
Actually, the most appealing thing about it is that sense of conspiratorial abandon — of Tatum really wanting the world to know that he’s actually sweet and fun and funny, and of Hill totally having his back with that. Joining Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg in “The Other Guys,” and Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in “Hot Fuzz,” these two sit well together among recent on-screen pairs of improbable cops.
This may not tell us much about modern law enforcement, but it does imply a social contract of sorts. Somehow without falling apart entirely, “21 Jump Street” combines flip vulgarity, daffy warmth, and antic wish fulfillment about revisable high-school history. It couldn’t be more suited, therefore, to the odd entertainment-property paradox of movies containing such adolescent indulgence that actual adolescents may not see them unless accompanied by adults. In this case adulthood means being old enough to cough up twenty bucks worth of half-ashamed nostalgia for the original program. (And it may be reported, without spoilage, that the filmmakers do their requisite-cameo duty stoutly.)
No, it’s not like anybody begged Hollywood for another impish semi-spoof in the subgenre of More Shit From When We Were Growing Up Turned Into Shit That Now Reminds Us We’re Getting Old. But if “21 Jump Street” the show could be said to deserve a movie, this one must be it.