Old School

Jonah Hill cops out in a 21 Jump Street do-over

The balance of the universe was rocked in a potentially catastrophic way a couple of months ago when Jonah Hill's name turned up among the nominees for a Best Actor Oscar. Beside throwing into question 85 years of Oscar history, the nod also implied that Hill's thespian tank contained more than the two modes he's built his career on: bugging out his eyes and looking awkward (see Cyrus and Moneyball), and stringing together four-letter words in inventive new ways (pretty much everything else he's been in).

But you can rest easy; the cosmos remains intact with 21 Jump Street, which pretty much puts to rest any doubts about Hill taking his onscreen chops in dramatic new directions. Even though he's been whittled down to Slim Fast-commercial size, he's back to his old tricks, buggin' out and saying "fuck" a lot, this time with beefy sidekick Channing Tatum in tow. The result is a ho-hum comedy that's short on laughs but still manages to entertain.

The movie, which is based on the late-'80s TV show that launched Johnny Depp's career, is about a special police unit made up of young-looking cops tasked with infiltrating high schools to sniff out crime. Hill and Tatum are newbie officers Schmidt and Jenko, respectively. Before joining the force, they knew each other from school, where Schmidt was a bubbling nerd living under the boot heel of Jenko, the popular jock. At the police academy, the opposites attract, forming a brawn-meets-brain partnership.

Together, they're assigned to the 21 Jump Street unit to find out who's supplying kids with a synthetic drug. Schmidt is worried that the new school experience will repeat his traumatic teen years, so Jenko promises he'll teach his buddy how to roll with the popular crowd. But Jenko's jock vibe runs hilariously foul of the eco-friendly Obamafied kids of the 2010s. So it's Schmidt's sensitive nerd who jets to the top of the social pack while Jenko is branded the loser. The movie is at its best when it mines this vein, playing off the various passing fads and fashions of high school.

But what makes 21 Jump Street click is the great supporting talent orbiting the two leads. Ice Cube plays the tough cop running the unit. The Office's Ellie Kemper puts in some time as a chemistry teacher struggling to keep her hands off Jenko. And The Daily Show's Rob Riggle steals every scene he's in as the football coach. Every time Hill and Tatum start wearing thin, another familiar face pops onscreen, mainlining some energy back into the deadweight proceedings.

Schmidt starts liking high school a little more than he should, mostly thanks to a crush he develops on a student played by Brie Larson. As Jenko tries to keep focused on their mission, bad feelings begin to bubble between them. Not so surprisingly, the movie's finale unravels on prom night, picking up speed after a late-inning cameo (which we won't spoil) that almost justifies the price of admission.

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