We’re finally out of the post-winter doldrums and in the midst of the buildup to the summer movie season, and I must admit I’m pretty psyched. With any luck we have a handful of high-quality event movies to look forward to (on that note, check back next time for a look at “The Hunger Games”), and perhaps some of the “lesser” titles will provide some pleasant surprises. Take this week’s pick, which I was initially not even going to see until early reviews swayed my opinion just enough to give it a shot. Turns out it’s the best time I’ve had at the movies so far this year, and easily the most flat-out funny flick I’ve seen since last year’s “Horrible Bosses.” Go figure, huh?
I’ve been writing this column for a long time, and sometimes I wonder how I’ve survived without completely losing my passion for film. So many bad movies, so many crushing disappointments, so much dwelling on the negative — how’s a guy supposed to keep the faith week in and week out? The answer, strange as it may seem: movie’s like “21 Jump Street.”
It is not a work of art. Clearly, it will not be winning any awards. But I will say this for it: When I walked into the theater, I had endured a particularly rough day full of sorrow and pity and pretty much every other bad emotion you can imagine, and the absolute last thing I wanted to do was watch yet another awful adaptation of an equally awful ’80s television show. Two hours later, I walked out of the theater smiling, lightly chuckling to myself in remembrance of some of the movie’s funnier gags, and generally just feeling a lot better about life and my place in the universe. The experience bordered on the spiritual.
I do not claim that “21 Jump Street” will afford all audiences the same life-affirming experience, but I have a hard time imagining that any viewer with some semblance of a sense of humor could sit through it without completely busting up at least a half-dozen times. The key here is that, as written by Michael Bacall (whose less successful “Project X” is also currently in wide release), the movie is not your standard TV-to-film adaptation. In fact, it’s barely even an adaptation at all. The filmmakers set their sights a bit higher with this one, and have fashioned nothing less than a savage burn on the entire genre.
“21 Jump Street” is sly satire at its finest, unfettered by the ham-fisted theatrics that mar the “Scary Movie” films and their ilk (which, unfortunately, have become the standard for industry satires). The movie has its share of obvious gags, but they are outnumbered about 10-1, and easily overshadowed by sharp dialogue and energetic performances. The filmmakers are clearly as sick of Hollywood’s creative bankruptcy as the rest of us, and “21 Jump Street” serves as a much-needed middle finger to the kind of half-baked nonsense that studio execs assume will pass for entertainment (see: “The A-Team,” “Alvin and the Chipmunks,” et.al.).
Naturally, these efforts would be moot without energetic performances from Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, as a pair of rookie cops who experience a jarring generation gap when they are assigned to infiltrate a drug ring operating out of a local high school. They seem game for anything, and share an unlikely chemistry that makes them a blast to watch (this coming from a former Tatum-hater). Also of note is Ice Cube (again, not usually a fan), as the stereotypical “angry black police captain” heading up the undercover operation. Like Hill and Tatum, he embraces the amped-up absurdity of the entire affair and just has fun with it.
I’m reasonably certain that “21 Jump Street” won’t remain at the top of my list of 2012 releases for long, and perhaps I’m over-rating it a bit in the first place (it does admittedly run about 20 minutes too long, and flirts with wearing out its welcome). But the fact remains that I haven’t been so thoroughly entertained — indeed, enchanted — by a mainstream movie in many months.
Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.