What’s the real point of being “self-referential” in the movies? Is it ever an act of daring? Is it always the lazy filmmaker’s excuse to cut the corners of emotional gravity? Something else? (A stab at the currently chic brand of comedic absurdity?) Surely there’s always a point at which a movie referencing its sources becomes too much for that movie to handle. If 21 Jump Street is interesting, it’s interesting insofar as it hovers on or around this point. If it’s bad (and it is), it’s bad because it can’t tell the difference between itself and the stuff it’s referencing. The point, then, of this self-aware movie version of 21 Jump Street is how funny it might be to reference the TV show with which it shares a name. When it makes those references, it at least feels like it’s staying on topic. Everything else — and there’s a lot more; the movie isn’t only made up of jokes about itself — is filler, the kind of stuff you imagine a boardroom full of day worker-comedians would come up with if all they wanted to do was get some ideas down and head to lunch.
Granted, it’s a nice idea to turn what was in the late 80s an honest-to-goodness dramatic TV series into an out-and-out comedy. Generally, the trend has been to adapt TV within the same genre; see Starsky and Hutch, The Dukes of Hazzard, or The Beverly Hillbillies — or don’t, because you will never get those hours back. Here, we have a twist of sorts, a drama turned into a comedy, but only superficially. Because in the cultural memory, 21 Jump Street — the TV show — is remembered with a wide ol’ ironic smirk.
Channing Tatum, who likes to appear in movies, appears here as bulky rookie cop fuck-up Jenko, which (reference!) is the name of one of the actors from the TV show. Jonah Hill plays Tatum’s polar opposite — except for the rookie part — in Schmidt, a smart kid who carries around a different bulk, the kind that comes from spending too much time sitting around reading. After buddying up at the police academy (less funny than it sounds), Jenko and Schmidt botch an assignment as bicycle cops and are foisted off on a typically (for the movie) self-aware angry captain, played by Ice Cube, who assigns them to an L.A. high school where they must pretend to be students to find out who the hell is offering all these kids drugs.
Apparently, on the TV show, each episode featured a different school and a different set of crimes for the undercover cops to investigate. Throughout the entire movie, Tatum and Hill have only one job: to ingratiate themselves with the cool kids they quickly surmise are selling the drugs and find the kids’ suppliers. This means, of course, that what took 43 minutes to figure out and wrap up 20 years ago is now a little more than twice as long. The slackness is padded with gay-panic jokes, rubber-faced drug freakouts, and a lot of winking at the audience (the film never gets tired of pointing out that it’s easy to recycle old ideas, thereby letting itself off the hook again and again). Tatum is better in comedy than he is in romantic-comedy, but not quite as passable as he is in action. Hill is the film’s saving grace, really, in that he is a born comedian who, whenever the script is giving him nothing, is perfectly comfortable ad-libbing jokes about what we’re all thinking: that it sure is silly to put this much effort into making fun of what people didn’t even take seriously a generation ago.