I know this sounds crazy, but 21 Jump Street could end up being the best comedy of the year. Really.
21 Jump StreetDirector: Phil Lord, Christopher Miller
Cast: Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Ice Cube, Rob Riggle, Brie Larson, Dave Franco
US Release Date: 2012-03-16
All right, readers. It's confession time. Before I get into my latest coverage of SXSW, I have a secret I need to share. I would prefer to keep it to myself, as I have for a few years now, but I feel it's necessary to reveal for the purposes of this article. If any of you stop reading and click over to Faith's unbiased (and, let's be honest, probably better) coverage, I completely understand. Wow. This isn't easy. I've only told a few close friends, and they were less than understanding. Okay. Here goes nothing:
I am a Channing Tatum fan.
That's right. That Channing Tatum. The Channing Tatum affectionately labeled C Tates, The Chan Man, and my personal favorite, Chan Tates. To many, Chan Tates' career began with Step Up, Step Up 2: The Streets, or Dear John. He's played the heartthrob ever since, including quite successfully this very year in the critically panned but financially fine V-Day hit, The Vow.
I have not seen The Vow, but only because it would've been far too depressing to go see the "date movie of the year" without a lovely lady sitting next to me (yes, I'm straight -- so my fandom has nothing to do with C Tates' physicality, but it may be the source of my loneliness). I have seen G.I. Joe, the aforementioned Dear John, and Haywire, in which Chan Chan was the sole highlight.
So when I read The Channing would be gracing The Paramount theater with his tween-attracting presence for the premiere of his first 100 percent comedic performance (no, She's the Man does not count), you better believe I was first in line. Okay, I was sixth. Seriously, those teenyboppers are crazy for the C Tates. They were screaming at every black SUV that pulled up, perhaps perfecting their pitch for when C.T. did show up because they just know if they scream loud enough he will propose to them on the spot.
At least he showed up in style. Both Mr. Tatum and costar Jonah Hill entered the Paramount dressed as bicycle cops - shorts, black bike gloves, and beer in hand. At first, it felt a little too publicity-friendly for me. I mean come on. It's the world premiere of your movie. I know it's about cops posing as high school students, but couldn't you guys at least throw on your prom tuxes?
Then the movie began, and everything started to make sense. 21 Jump Street is nothing more than a vehicle for nonstop laughter. The film doesn't want to be anything else. It earns its R-rating with pride, but doesn't rely on gross-out gags, shocking nudity, or an overuse of F-bombs to get the job done. Even without the post-screening Q&A (which featured an on-fire Jonah Hill joking about how their first choice for Chan Man's part was Ryan "Baby Goose" Gosling), it's easy to tell the film is a labor of love for its cast and crew.
None of this is to say the film fails during its requisite dramatic moments. It doesn't. It's just not as concerned with them, and rightly so. Screenwriter Michael Bacall and directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (all of whom were In the crowd watching the film) waste no time getting to the jokes. Anything extraneous to the humor, plot, or character development (yes, the latter two do matter here) seems to have been tossed aside in favor of more one-liners, slapstick, and oddball visuals, usually brought on by drugs or alcohol.
This 21 Jump Street isn't trying to be the original TV show. Why would it? The only reason the show comes up in conversation is because of Johnny Depp. No one is putting it on a pedestal.
Instead, the film pays due homage to its ancestor in the best way it can -- by poking fun at its absurd premise whenever possible. Plenty of people comment on how old Channing looks. Ron Swanson, er, I mean Nick Offerman, messes up the line inserted simply to drop the title. Plenty of references are made to how much high school has changed even in the few years since our characters were really attending classes.
This actually proves to be one of the film's great strengths. It's depiction of how class dynamics have altered since the TV show's run on primetime are actually quite relevant. They're also endearing. Instead of letting Chan Tates be the cliched popular kid again, the film sets up hipsters/earth-lovers/P.C. liberals as the new show runners. It's a fantastic, subtle update that's played for plenty of laughs along the way.
21 Jump Street is simply a great time at the movies, and it's constructed with the love and energy necessary to pull off a feat of pure exuberance. Tates, who's never really worked in comedy before, senses the tone and throws himself into the role with gusto. It's a fantastic turn that's matched by Jonah Hill, who's come a long way since Superbad. I'm not talking about his recent Oscar nomination either. He's matured as a comedian. His timing is better. His voice fluctuates between quiet mockery and panicked screams (before I remember him as just being loud).
Plus, he had the wisdom to cast C Tates without ever meeting him. During the Q&A, he said he saw Tatum's performance in the little known indie A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints and thought "that guy can do anything". I don't know if even I would go that far, but he was absolutely right about Channing's ability to do comedy (and his performance in that movie -- check it out).
Now, I'm not going to start the Oscar campaign or anything. Hell, 21 Jump Street wasn't even the best film of the Fest. Here's what I will report, though. The crowd absolutely loved it. There was loud, raucous laughter throughout. So much so, in fact, I missed a lot of dialogue because the crowd drowned it out. The movie also received the first standing ovation I've seen this year.
At the end of the night, Hill was asked about the possibility of a sequel. He said everyone on stage would love to do it, but, like all Hollywood wannabe franchises, it basically comes down to how the film performs at the box office. Based on what I saw in the Paramount Monday night, I don't see any worries there. Just don't try to replace my Chan Tates.