“High school’s never over.” So Emily Blunt’s character achingly blurts out in the charmer from a few years ago, The Jane Austen Book Club. I recalled this line over and over again as I watched 21 Jump Street, a different kind of charmer. In it, Jonah Hill and Canning Tatum play inexperienced cops—one smart, the other dumb. One fit, the other…yeah, yeah, yeah. Per the show that inspired it, the two go undercover as students at a local high school where a new drug is sweeping the hallways. Now, I know what you’re thinking, and so do the film’s writers (who in the opening moments make this very clear): Here is yet another Hollywood ploy to snatch up an old property and spin some more dollars from it. And by all accounts, 21 Jump Street is just that. But for a self-consciously outlandish action-comedy it also has a lot of heart. In fact, its airy brashness coupled with that heart makes 21 Jump Street intriguing, even fresh.
In school, both the Hill and the Tatum characters try to slip back into the roles they filled with such ease the first time: Tatum, the dumb jock; Hill, the brainy nerd. But they soon learn that kids nowadays don’t fit as snugly into the simpler framework of social identities that dictated their adolescent years. The nerds are not outcasts and it’s cool to be informed. This is a wired generation that has reflexively internalized the values and commercial fads of the 80s and 90s. (Maybe Juno wasn’t so far off, after all?) If I’m making this all sound like an overt generational commentary, the film itself is more subtle. It knowingly navigates the trappings of high school life via its proxies of the two protagonists, each of whom essentially has a do-over at a most defining point in anyone’s development. Yes, the movie offers extravagant set pieces of action and comedy, some more effective than others. (Rob Riggle’s desperate attempts at comedy are ever more desperate, if you’re wondering.) And the frenetic action towards the end threatens to compromise the film’s smooth balance up until. But the quieter moments between are when 21 Jump Street really digs in and rather touchingly addresses how easy it is to shun even those who we care most about on our quests to gain acceptance. More pointedly, the movie captures how much it hurts to be on the other side. And isn’t that what we really learn in High School, anyway? (Phil Lord, Chris Miller) ***