21 Jump Street (Sony Pictures) makes a virtue of low expectations, like an underachieving high school burnout coasting on his modest reserves of charm. This spoof of the late-’80s/early ’90s TV series of the same name—to call it a “remake” would imply a more serious relationship to the source material—is earning critical praise chiefly, it seems, because it’s not as abysmally bad as it sounds on paper. Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum as novice cops who are forced to go undercover as high-school students to bust up a drug ring? Come on, that movie’s going to blow, right? But 21 Jump Street doesn’t blow—which could have been this movie’s raunchy, self-deprecating tagline if it didn’t already have several. 21 Jump Street isn’t a wild, fresh reinvention of the movie-cliché-spoofing genre—this isn’t Airplane! we’re talking about—but it’s also not a drearily overfamiliar retread of it. It doesn’t work hard enough to earn much more than a gentleman’s C, but I might let it sweet-talk me up to a B-.
The movie (written by Michael Bacall, who also adapted the graphic novel Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) even makes an overt joke of its own laziness in an early scene. A police captain, sending the young officers out on their first big assignment, stresses that the only reason the “Metropolitan City” police force is trying this crazy plan is because they’re “completely out of ideas.”
The best plan the force can come up with is to send these two unimpressive rookies, Jenko (Tatum) and Schmidt (Hill), back to the same high school where, as we learn in an flashback, they hated each other seven years earlier: Jenko was a handsome, easygoing jock, while Schmidt was a painfully shy geek with an Eminem-wannabe bleached buzzcut. (Never has the song “The Real Slim Shady” been used to such poignant dramatic effect.) Jenko and Schmidt must pass themselves off as brothers in order to infiltrate a ring of students who are manufacturing and selling a synthetic designer drug.
Though the twentysomething Jenko and Schmidt are out of step with current teen fashion (they still use their phones to make phone calls, for God’s sake!), they slowly manage to worm their way into the circle of kids surrounding the school drug kingpin Eric (played by Dave Franco, James’ lookalike little brother), who, in a gentle poke at sincere postmillennial teen-hood, is also a committed environmental activist. Eric’s sort-of girlfriend Molly (Brie Larson) starts a flirtation with Schmidt when he’s cast as Peter Pan opposite her Wendy in the school play. As for Jenko, who barely graduated from the police academy (asked to recite the Miranda rights, he mumbles as much as he can remember from Law & Order, then trails off), he finds A.P. chemistry such a struggle he’s forced to form alliances with the science-geek crowd he once mocked.
The action ramps up toward the second half as bigger-time drug dealers try to move in on Eric’s turf (one of them played, in an uncredited surprise cameo, by Johnny Depp, who got his start on the TV series). Like Pineapple Express—another drug-themed buddy comedy that coasted further than it should have on charm—21 Jump Street starts out stronger than it ends. The movie is at its best when it’s exploring the Jenko/Schmidt friendship, which is a surprisingly substantial one for a movie of this type: There’s homosocial bonding aplenty, yes, but also layers of mutual envy, respect, and affection.
Your tolerance for 21 Jump Street will depend in large part on how you feel about Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill—and if you go in unable to stand both actors, it’s unlikely these performances will change your mind about them. Tatum plays his usual agreeable-meathead type, though to his credit, he does display a decent sense of comic timing. And Hill is in his naive-dork Moneyball mode rather than his abrasive Superbad one, which is always a plus.
Many of the smaller roles are nicely played: As the superior officer the boys report to, Ice Cube proudly embraces his own angry-black-man stereotype in a funny if one-note bit. And Brie Larson, who was last seen doing an equally standout job as Woody Harrelson’s faux-disaffected older daughter in Rampart, is a find of major proportions as Schmidt’s goofy love interest. She’s not only beautiful but funny, with a scratchy contralto voice, and unlike the usual female in a buddy movie, she comes across as a real person you might actually enjoy knowing. Some of Molly’s phone conversations and text exchanges with Schmidt really evoke the stop-and-start rhythms of adolescent flirtation, and make you understand why a looker like Molly might be drawn to an emotionally honest dork like Schmidt. (It’s also carefully established, for the sake of respectability, that Molly is 18, and thus legal.)
Chris Miller and Phil Lord (whose last directorial collaboration was the inventive animated film Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs) only occasionally push the gross-out humor too far, especially in the late action sequences: I would have been fine with a life that didn’t include watching a man pick up his own shot-off penis with his teeth while his hands were cuffed behind his back. But if the first two-thirds of 21 Jump Street is anything to go by, there may be a renaissance at hand for the dumb buddy-cop comedy. I’m just not sure, as the wags in 10th grade used to put it, if that’s a threat or a promise.