The Manboy Aesthetic, embodied in this era by Sandler, Ferrell, and rest of the Apatow clan, is fascinating to watch at times. It’s all Jerry, no Dean.
Hot wives are certainly an option. And Apatow is doing personal work in that area. Sandler’s even wet his beak a bit in the notion. But the core of it remains younger guys – and the occasional 40 year old – trying to get laid.
Ferrell can swing to darker places now and again and Ben Stiller is the leader in sexual dysfunction, having been launch into the big game by The Farrellys, who turned out to be a little too dark to maintain their success.
The master of the dark side, right now, is undeniably Todd Phillips, who from the very start has tended to explore the comic side of people who can get laid and do get laid. In other words, he understands the need for The Dean. He didn’t really have one in Road Trip, but he had Vince Vaughn in Old School and then found Bradley Cooper to be The Dean in The Hangover. Billy Bob Thornton made an odd one, but a pretty good one, in School For Scoundrels. And then, the pure 2-act in Due Date, with Downey and The Dean and Zach G. as The Jerry.
But I digress…
The thing that jumps at you first with 21 Jump Street is the name Michael Bacall. We’ve seen it before. Recently. As the co-screenwriter and story creator of Project X, a movie with no Jerry, an iffy attempt at a Dean, and almost all id. Given that the movie makes the screenplay for Project X seem like a cake with 5 times more frosting than cake and that Bacall is also co-credited (with Edgar Wright, who has a whole different take on the Manboy Aesthetic) with the screenplay for the story-driven Scott Pilgrim vs The World, it’s hard to imagine what’s coming next.
The pieces of 21 Jump Street come together in an interesting way. First, there is the central conceit. The stud, played by Channing Tatum, is left in a secondary position by a variety of turns. The pud, played by Jonah Hill, is empowered by a return to the high school of 2012.
There is a lot of movie satire and TV satire, embodied by Ice Cube, a gaggle of high school teachers, and a special guest star cameo… but not so much that it dominates the movie.
There is a lot of drug material, but not so much that it every takes drugs very seriously.
There is a weird sex vibe, but never so much that it creeps you our and takes you out of comfortable place with the key characters.
The surprising choice of directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who masterfully made a surreal family movie in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, turned out to be kinda brilliant, as the duo gets off about a half-dozen interesting set pieces that none of the conventional choices for “tweener satirical comedy with drugs” would have aspired to create.
The thing that works about 21 Jump Street is that it’s off key… but in a way that ends up feeling relaxed and yet not sloppy. It’s not a masterpiece. But it feels right, for what it is. It’s a manboy movie that believes there’s a Dean inside every Jerry and a Jerry inside every Dean. It’s kinda post-Apatowian in much the same way that Cloudy was post-John K. It’s a synthesis that doesn’t feel the need to explain itself.
Here’s one example. You have seen the gag on TV or in the trailer where Jonah Hill is going to jump on the hood of the oncoming car just like Tatum did. And in the spots, the windshield is smashed. Not in the movie. He still ends up in a lump on the ground. But they didn’t have to go “commercial far” to get the joke to work in the film. They’re not going to beg for the laugh. (This also puts me in mind of the “When did I get stabbed?” gag.)
Jonah Hill is right in his wheelhouse and unlike The Sitter, never feels like he is trying to overcome an unsettled script by working too hard. Channing Tatum is as dead as deadpan gets, his usual perceived assets being the butt of endless jokes.
I was not a “21 Jump Street TV” viewer, so I probably missed some stuff. But I knew enough to get Ice Cube’s spin on Bernie Casey and the ilk, recognized cameos by Holly Robinson and the ilk, and just like using the word “ilk” in general. I never felt left out of that party.
This is one of those movies that is much better than expected, but is still for a specific audience – if you don’t like dick jokes, don’t go – that will have a good time at this movie that was made for their sensibility.