21 Jump Street is the perfect movie for this week to me. It is very popular and successful (not necessarily the same thing), it encapsulates many things I’d consider representative for this year (or our time) and it’s actually quite good. I expected to find it okay, but I really liked it and was surprised by the wit and charm of it (with exceptions). Jonah Hill (who I have a soft spot for because of Wolf of Wall Street) and Channing Tatum (who I didn’t think could act until this movie) are really good in their roles, the writing is good and the movie has many ideas. It’s not deep or anything, but it is entertaining and a little bit more, which must count for something. Some of the jokes are too vulgar (especially in a scene towards the end, which is simply gratuitous and not funny) and Ice Cube is really bad. I mean, really, really bad. But apart from that, this is a very funny movie that makes me want to see the sequel.
What is surely the strongest appeal of the movie is its self-awareness. Self-irony? I don’t even know what they call this anymore these days, but I think the way it deals with itself and tropes and stereotypes is symbolic for our time. It’s not that we got rid of them, but more and more movies are able to use them consciously, to reflect upon them. Sometimes this is bad, when it becomes cynical or when nothing is serious anymore, but when it is done right, it can be very effective. Especially here it’s almost metafictional the way the movie winks at the audience. The best moment certainly is when their chief (Nick Offerman) explains their new undercover assignment:
We’re reviving a cancelled, undercover police program from the 80s and revamping it for modern times. You see, the guys in charge of this stuff lack creativity and are completely out of ideas. So all they do now is recycle shit from the past and expect us all not to notice.
This is simply brilliant and as metafictional as it gets. And it shows what the movie is trying to do, namely bringing this recycling to another level by dealing with the recycling itself. If you compare it to our earlier movie this week, Battleship, you see the difference. Battleship took some silly idea for a reboot and made nothing with it, taking itself extremely serious with a completely ridiculous concept. 21 Jump Street knows its concept is ridiculous and while ridiculing itself nevertheless takes its characters seriously and gives them emotions and purpose (which Battleship didn’t even come close).
And look how they deal with the high school stereotypes. When they arrive at the school, they namecheck some of the student tropes we know from other movies but then introduce new ones that we haven’t seen before. This works because the characters are confused by those new groups, while at least parts of the audience know them. It’s not strictly metafictional but it’s still an effective use of playing with stereotypes and genre tropes. But it also avoids making fun of those stereotypes. The nerds at first seem like typical nerds but the movie accepts them as they are. And the idea of turning the roles of our main characters on its head works in that favor, too.
Apart from that the movie also plays with various stereotypes of such movies, like the overaged students or unnecessary explosions. Not everything works and sometimes the line between clever comedy and spoof movie is blurred. But again, I think the movie’s biggest strength is that it most of the time really knows what it’s doing and does it in an intelligent way, even if it’s silly and over-the-top. But the movie has heart and you can’t say that for most of the other shit we’re expected to pay money for.