October 21, 2014

21 Jump Street: An unlikely movie treat

Each week, the Reel Dad checks the nutritional value of a movie — new or classic — to help families choose what to watch. This week’s pick is a new comedy based on a television series, 21 Jump Street.

Now and then a film gets cooked with the least likely ingredients and a recipe for disappointment. But then something magical happens in the cinema kitchen to create a surprising movie treat that makes us laugh even if much of the humor is tasteless.

On paper, the new comedy 21 Jump Street looked as promising as a reheated television show, perhaps because that’s where the movie came from. When least creative, moviemakers saturate audiences with adaptations of the tube, from The A Team to Get Smart, Bewitched and The Brady Bunch. So how could a long-forgotten police series from the late 1980s become so much fun on the big screen?

Leave it to Jonah Hill, the Oscar nominee for Moneyball, to score a knock-out comic punch as the star and co-writer of this inventive, outrageous and ultimately touching human comedy. While the old television show is only remembered for launching Johnny Depp’s career, the movie version will be more difficult to forget. Few of the new adult comedies — in the spirit of The Hangover and Bridesmaids — develop as authentic a central relationship as Hill portrays with the equally endearing Channing Tatum. Together they create a memorable duo that takes us back to Paul Newman and Robert Redford in The Sting. The difference is you could invite the whole family to that movie, but not this one.

On film, 21 Jump Street uses the television premise as a foundation for hilarity.  Hill and Tatum play high school classmates — who didn’t like each other — who later reconnect at the police academy. They become good friends who help each other through the rigors of training. After a disastrous start on the force, they are assigned to go undercover at their old high school to infiltrate a drug ring. But it’s no picnic to return to an alma mater where the social mores have changed.

This set up gives Hill and co-writer Michael Bacall open license to create a view of high school life, from the impact of social media and cell phones to the influence of peers and the popularity of musical theater. And while parents may hope they paint an exaggerated picture, the writers are clever enough to reveal moments of truth. 

No matter what tools students use, gossip hurts, kids can be mean, and parents can try to manage too many details. By focusing just enough on how life can be on a suburban campus, Hill and Bacall exaggerate what we would hope it never becomes.

Of course, directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller are too sassy and savvy to let messages occupy too much screen time. This is a movie party and they are serving refreshments. But while 21 Jump Street may come from television, it will never be shown, without editing, on a broadcast channel. This is not a family film even though its ultimate moral, of people reaching outside themselves to help others, is more touching than such comedies usually serve.

Grounding the film is Hill’s engaging performance as Schmidt, the ignored academic who longs for popular acceptance. No matter how wild the comedy, Hill refuses to shortchange how the character develops. That’s quite an accomplishment in a film filled with as much outrageous humor as its 109 minutes can handle. Hill reminds us that character is the most important ingredient to comedy no matter the source or strength of the concept.

Film Nutritional Value

21 Jump Street

* Content: High. While it may be inspired by an old television show, the film never gets trapped into reheating what once appeared on the tube.

* Entertainment: High. As raunchy as some moments can be, the movie is a lot of fun for people who can handle the humor.

* Message: Medium. While the movie is designed to make us laugh, the authentic performances also make us think.

* Relevance: Medium. Any opportunity to laugh this much at the movies is relevant.

* Opportunity for Dialogue: Medium. While there is not a lot substance to talk about, there are moments you will find it difficult to forget.

(21 Jump Street is rated R for content, language, drug material, teen drinking and violence. The film runs 109 minutes.)

4 Popcorn Buckets