Wednesday, March 21, 2012

21 Jump Street

I was all set to have a blast watching the movie "21 Jump Street" - a friend had told me it was beyond funny - and it kept feeling like it was about to happen, but it never did. It's a movie where nobody behaves the way a human being would in similar circumstances, so it's essentially absurdist humor, which is very hard to pull off. And it never quite finds its groove for more than a moment at a time; it's an uneasy mix of desperation, the actors flailing about and ever more profanity where the funny lines are supposed to go, and unwarranted nonchalance, as though the set-up were funny enough without worrying about the execution.

Of the leads, it's surprisingly Channing Tatum who comes off best, showing an appealing gameness that softens his generic pretty-boy look. Jonah Hill can do his part in his sleep, but he's done better work recently, in "Moneyball" and "Cyrus" and even "Get Him to the Greek." There are some great ideas for supporting characters, played by Ice Cube and Ellie Kemper, and they draw a few chuckles, but never the guffaws you keep waiting for.

Both times I laughed out loud, they were almost throwaways by the filmmakers. In one scene, the science nerds Tatum infiltrates keep referring to something. "Is that a code name for drugs?" Tatum asks. "No," one nerd tries to explain, "it's kind of a hybrid card game." The other big laugh comes when Hill's mother packs bag lunches for Hill and Tatum, who are posing as brothers in their undercover assignment. She writes their assumed names on their bags and puts them in quotation marks. As I say, a one-second throwaway, but funnier than anything else in the picture.

By the end, the movie is truly up on blocks spinning its wheels. There's a Johnny Depp cameo that goes nowhere, there are car chases and explosions, and a drug bust gone bad that takes half an hour to play out. It's not funny, it's just boring dead air. A surprising misfire and a major disappointment.

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