It’s an old adage of comedy, and I wish I knew who coined it in order to give due credit: Only the truth is funny.
In other words, any sort of material that isn’t based in real, genuine human behavior by definition can’t be funny.
So, when Jonah Hill, playing a cop going undercover as a high school student, has his cover blown by a friend of his mother who a) knows he’s a cop and b) knows he’s working undercover yet continues to blab his real identity to the teenage drug dealers he’s trying to infiltrate leading to Hill shoving her into a department store display, it’s painfully unfunny. The punchline is as cheap as it gets (old lady falls down), but the scene could work by simply making the old lady oblivious to what’s going on. But, the script (by Michael Becall with a story credit to Hill) has established this old lady knows Hill’s character, so her insistence to keep blathering about his undercover status is behavior only motivated to deliver a gag. No human being whose spinal cord is attached to their brain would ever behave this way. It isn’t truthful. And, it’s painfully unfunny.
There’s a lot of that going on in 21 Jump Street, a really dreadful comedy based on the 1980s TV series that ran on the fledgling Fox TV network and helped launch Johnny Depp’s career.
Refashioning the series as a feature film comedy isn’t a bad idea, since the show’s premise (the aforementioned adult cops going undercover as high school students) is pretty patently stupid. In fact, the whole thing starts kind of promisingly as the film openly ridicules its own lack of originality. But, it goes downhill fast.
Hill and Channing Tatum play cops who were polar opposites in their shared high school experience. Hill was a bookish and unpopular nerd while Tatum was a popular but lunkheaded jock. The two become friends while attending the police academy, helping each other overcome their weaknesses in order to graduate.
Their first bust goes horribly wrong, and the two are demoted to a retired undercover program abandoned in the ’80s. Nick Offerman (who plays Ron Swanson on Parks and Recreation, one of the great television characters of the moment) has a nice scene as Hill and Tatum’s boss.
Here’s where things start to unravel: the film has established Hill as the smart one, but once they start actual police work, Hill’s character becomes just as stupid as Tatum’s. Why does he lose his mind? Because the jokes require it. Character consistency gets tossed out the window in favor of letting the actors endlessly riff off each other. The film starts down the sad road of desperate, flop-sweating effort to make scenes funny as opposed to making them work.
Once back in high school, the passage of time and the mix-up of their undercover identities allow the two cops to switch places. Now, Hill’s character is the popular one while Tatum’s is the outsider. Sadly, that’s a decent concept that never goes anywhere.
There are some good ideas that get abandoned along the way, and I did like Tatum’s character befriending the nerds in his AP chemistry class. Some of the adult actors survive things, particularly the always funny Chris Parnel as a drama teacher (it seems like Parnel is always Dr. Spaceman, which is fine by me).
The biggest problem is Jonah Hill. He never seems to connect with anybody he’s on screen with, because he’s always trying to say something funny. Bill Murray can somehow get away with it; he can be funny and still connect. I had the same problem with Seth Rogan in 50/50. Rogan is in a completely different movie, trying to be funny at the expense of entire scenes working. Fortunately, 50/50 had more than enough good things going on (a great script, plus Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anna Kendrick were awesome, as was Angelica Huston) and the movie more than compensated. 21 Jump Street doesn’t have that luxury. Hill’s constant riffing and occasional screaming just wore me down. He’s less obnoxious here than he is in Superbad, but the movie is killed by constant stupid behavior by characters at the service of jokes that don’t land.
Tatum, on the other hand, proves himself to be a reasonably deft comedian.
Something else I feel should be noted is the film is rated R. I read a lot of film coverage online, and it seems like there’s a hunger out there for movies to have the creative freedom an R rating provides. For instance, in the past few days I’ve read a lot of criticism of The Hunger Games for “playing it safe” and going out with a PG-13 rating. I guess somebody thinks it is good business sense for a movie based on a popular young adult novel to be unavailable to its core audience of young adults.
I agree with backing artistic freedom and creativity. I think films should contain the material they need in order to be the best movie they can be. But with creative freedom comes responsibility. Just because you can do something onscreen doesn’t mean you should. One of my all-time favorite movies is Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights. The material in that film is integral to what it is and what it has to say. I can’t imagine a PG-13 Boogie Nights. On the other hand, The Hangover Part II is just trying to be as outrageous as possible and for no other reason.
21 Jump Street is a hard R, but I don’t think the rating adds anything of real merit to the film. The writers use their freedom to get lazy. There are just a lot (a lot!) of jokes about penises in it. In the age of the It Gets Better project, is it still funny to have two straight men argue about who should perform oral sex on whom in order to throw off suspicion if they’re spotted during a stakeout?
I thought it was just depressing.