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‘21 Jump Street’ plays with stereotypes

Published: March 23, 2012
Section: Arts, Etc.


“21 Jump Street,” the newly released action-comedy film starring Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, manages to make everyday stereotypes funny again. The film is loosely based on the TV series of the same name, which aired on Fox and sprung Johnny Depp to stardom during the 1980s. Since its opening on March 16, the film to has grossed $35,000,000 in North America alone.

The film is purposefully set up so that stereotypes become inescapable. The premise is that two male police officers go undercover in a high school to get information about illegal drug dealing. The film includes classic high school themes from popularity to prom. Tatum plays Greg Jenko, who is tall, muscular and dumb, unable to pass his police exams or memorize the Miranda rights. Hill acts as Brad Schmidt, a small, geeky wiz at all things school, but a miserable failure at the physical skills required of a police officer. The genius move by screenwriter Michael Bacall is to accept these stereotypes and then manipulate them, creating a type of satire. The school that Greg and Brad infiltrate is the opposite of the “Mean Girls” high school normally seen in cinema. Popular are the kids who support environmental action and scoff at the establishment and sports.

Here, geeky Hill fits right in, while students tease and mock Tatum, who is unused to not getting his way. Other stereotypes are reversed: Tatum is approached by a female teacher who is infatuated with him, but he shrugs her off in a hilariously nonchalant manner. Even Tatum and Hill grow out of their own stereotypes by the end of the film. Hill does not bury his nose in a book, instead consorting with the popular kids. Tatum plays the burly-dumb male for most of the film, but at its close he defies expectation. He creates a bomb from the knowledge he learned in AP chemistry about covalent bonds. Embracing and challenging the stereotypes surrounding the films topic, “21 Jump Street” makes viewers laugh as the storyline develops to the opposite of what they expect.

While Hill’s character is similar to his past roles (with the exception of “Moneyball”), Tatum’s performance is different from his normal repertoire. Known for films such as “She’s the Man,” “Step Up,” “Dear John” and “The Vow,” Tatum is the tried-and-true pretty boy. A Nicholas Sparks darling, he is the perfect romantic, a large and clumsy man that millions of women in the audience will undoubtedly swoon over.

Yet, in “21 Jump Street,” Tatum has no love interest. While he does not stray far from his pretty-but-not-terribly-intelligent role of choice, here Hill is the character with a love life. This offers Tatum a chance to show a slightly different side. He focuses instead on relationships with his male friends: from his close partnership with Hill to the geeky friends he makes in chemistry class. Tatum is possibly better at this friendships than his romantic relationships. While Tatum’s romantic relationships in films like “The Vow” often feel forced and cheesy, his onscreen relationships with his male sidekicks appear far more genuine. It is almost more charming to watch Tatum swing pretend light sabers with his geeky friends than to watch him in an on-screen kiss.

The pitfalls of “21 Jump Street” are the sheer impossibility of many of the happenings within the film.

For one, Tatum and Hill are not near high school age; they look like they are old enough to be fathers. Tatum is actually 31 and Hill is 28, but in the film audiences must believe he is having an affair with an 18-year-old high school senior. There is one scene involving a motorcycle chase, car jackings and shootings, and yet no repercussions come from the giant traffic jam and murders the young police officers must have committed. Instead the film skips right ahead to Hill’s starring role in the musical as Peter Pan. While it it does not detract from the film’s humor, it slightly disrupts viewers to be taken so far out of reality.

It is jarring to have to return to the film knowing what just happened was implausible. Though the film remains hilarious, it could have been easier for audiences if some discrepancies in the plot were explained.

“21 Jump Street” is entirely set up for a sequel, its ending greeted with the proposition that now these two undercover cops will take on college instead of high school. While the film has its share of stupid humor, its satirical approach and quick, witty lines from its main characters make it a successful comedy. While sequels are very rarely better than the original, at least in the next college-set “21 Jump Street,” almost middle aged Tatum and Hill may look more in place.