Phil Lord and Chris Miller are two of my favourite people. They were the co-creators and show runners of the short-lived cartoon series, Clone High, which is one of the funniest shows of all time. They followed that up with a great stint producing and writing some of the best early episodes of How I Met Your Mother. In 2009 they made their feature directorial debut with one of my favourite animated films of all time, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. So it stands to reason that I was highly anticipating their live-action feature debut, 21 Jump Street. I’m happy to report that Lord and Miller do not disappoint.
The film is a take-off on the old TV series of the same name, which starred a young Johnny Depp. The premise in this update is that two friends and recent police school graduates are put on a special task-force to go undercover as high school students and bust a drug ring. The two friends? Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum.
I’m like Jonah Hill, so I had no problems there. The main area of concern was Channing Tatum, who I’ve never seen be anything but dull. Amazing, it’s Tatum who steals the show in 21 Jump Street. He plays a really unintelligent character, but one who’s also naïvely sweet and determined. And in an inventive twist, the film deals with how in the modern high school age, the meathead is no longer the most popular kid in school.
Instead, it’s Hill’s character who finds himself getting the attention of a pretty girl and becoming friends with the coolest kids in school. He’s getting to re-live his high school days, but this time he’s on the cool end. Tatum must deal with no longer being popular, but also losing his best friend in the process.
It’s that heart at the core of the film that grounds it for all the silly and absurd comedy. And boy do things get silly and absurd! While Lord and Miller didn’t write the screenplay—I’m sure they did a pass at it, though—they still bring a lot of the charm over from their animated work. Both Clone High and Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs played in the realm of detailed absurdity. They both have an anarchic tone, and the written and visual gags come at an insane speed. 21 Jump Street doesn’t quite match those earlier efforts, mostly because it takes the pace of a standard live-action comedy. It’s simply impossible for film to reach those levels without becoming a live-action cartoon in the vein of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Though the film isn’t as dense with gags, the absurdity comes through, and there are definitely moments that have the wild anarchy of a great animated cartoon.
A car chase in the middle of the film, for example, features the kinds of gags you’d expect to find in a cartoon or a Python sketch. A scene in which the two characters are high on drugs features some inventive, wacky visuals. The only time the film really loses this spry feeling is towards the end when the plot actually has to come together, and even then the film manages to throw a great absurdist gag into what would otherwise have been a purely farcical version of the hotel shoot-out in True Romance.
Of course, in the end the most important question to ask when coming out of a comedy is “did you laugh?” I laughed. Constantly. Consistently. From beginning to end I was laughing. Really, what more can anyone ask for? 21 Jump Street is a crazy, hilarious comedy with great heart and a winning absurd streak. It features a career re-defining role for Channing Tatum, another great comedic performance from Jonah Hill, and proof that Phil Lord and Chris Miller are two of the most talented guys working in film comedy today in both animation and live-action.