Jonah Hill is no longer the discount version of Seth Rogen. He's emerging as a formidable talent that matches or surpasses that of his mentor/pal. Hill has proven he can hang with an excellent dramatic cast in Moneyball, and is starting to get as much bromance action than Paul Rudd. But if he keeps signing on for half-hearted romps into the realm of idiocy like The Sitter and 21 Jump Street, he's going to get shoved aside by whatever chubby comic wunderkind is lurking behind him.
If this were 1950s Catholic school, I'd call Hill to the front of the class and smack his knuckles with a ruler for this nonsense. Sure, the movie is funnier at times than it has any right to be, but it has no right whatsoever to be funny, so the bar isn't set all that high. Its best moments involve spontaneous dry-humping, an old lady getting a smackdown at a convenience store and old jokes about oral sex.
Maybe there are filmmakers out there who could make a great movie about the old TV show, but directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller prove not to be those people. The slimmed-down Hill — who I'm happy to read has plumped back up as of late, because fatter equals funnier — squeezes everything he can out of the limp premise, but he's a little too good at inspiring sympathy. You don't root for his character so much as you do for the actor to climb out of the screen to escape the movie.
Granted, it's pretty much Hill's fault this movie exists, because he's an executive producer and developed the story with screenwriter Michael Bacall. Hill and Channing Tatum play burnout rookie cops forced against their will to masquerade as high schoolers in an attempt break up a drug ring. Ice Cube, who is good for a few laughs as the insult-spewing captain, orders the officers not to sleep with any students. What little drama there is comes from whether Hill will seduce a popular girl (Brie Larson) or whether a teacher (Ellie Kemper) will be able to keep her hands off Tatum. Since both plotlines try to drag humor out of implied child molestation, the icky sorta-romances make for more winces than chuckles.
The movie tries to drum up some humor by comparing the supposed differences at high schools in 2012 to 2005, by showing how out-of-place and clueless Hill and Tatum are, but the efforts are head-scratchers that cling to dubious stereotypes. According to the filmmakers, gay jokes are no longer tolerated in the hallways, and the most popular kids are the ones who are into green living. This ain't exactly Adam Sandler going back to school in his jean jacket in Billy Madison.
Stalwarts from the TV show, including Johnny Depp, Holly Robinson Peete and some dude I didn't recognize, pop up in cameos. Their mere presence is supposed to be a hoot. I'm sure it's great for fans of the old series to see these guys come back, but they'll probably just be sad to see the memory of another show they liked ruined by the Hollywood machine. At least this new, worthless 21 Jump Street won't stick around the collective memory long, fading into the ether just like the remakes of Bewitched, Starsky & Hutch, The Dukes of Hazzard and all the others that are barely worth remembering.
Starring Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Brie Larson, Dave Franco, Ellie Kemper and Ice Cube. Written by Michael Bacall, based on a story by Bacall and Jonah Hill, which itself was based on the TV series by Patrick Hasburgh and Stephen J. Cannell. Directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller. 109 minutes. Rated R.