Monday, April 9, 2012

Blogorium Review(s): 21 Jump Street and 30 Minutes or Less

 Welcome to a numerically themed pair of reviews at the Blogorium. I actually saw these movies a few weeks ago, but didn't really have enough to say about them individually to put up reviews. Since my Young Adult review / essay / whatever keeps running into the "delete" button, it seemed like I might have better luck giving you good people the lowdown on a couple of comedies that skirted under the radar. For very different reasons, mind you, but under the radar no less.


 I wasn't going to see 21 Jump Street. There was no reason to: I didn't watch the show, I have a middling disinterest in Channing Tatum, and the premise represented something in the trend of "if they know the name, make it into a movie" that just bores me. I don't even have the energy to get indignant about it any more.

 And then I started seeing the positive reviews; the critics weren't just positive, many of them were glowing about 21 Jump Street. It had to be a joke, I thought - there was no way this movie was in any way as funny or surprising as readers were being led to believe. The fix must finally be in and studios managed to buy off every critic out there. While the concept of "Certified Fresh" on Rotten Tomatoes has long since outlived its use as a marketing tool, there's that 85% positive rating sitting next to 21 Jump Street. A movie based on a TV show that people probably just barely remember. I'm in the film's target audience (18-35) and I barely remember the show.

 What I didn't anticipate was that screenwriter Michael Bacall (working with a story credit to co-star Jonah Hill) is as aware as many of us are about this tendency and addresses it directly near the beginning of the film. After Jenko (Tatum) and Schmidt (Hill), two high school antagonists turned police academy pals, ruin an easy bust of drug runners because Jenko can't remember the Miranda rights, Deputy Chief Hardy (Nick Offerman) reassigns them, describing the situation thusly:

 "Fortunately for you two, we're reviving a cancelled undercover police program from the 80s, revamping it for modern times. You see, the guys in charge of this stuff lack creativity and are completely out of ideas, so all they do now is recycle shit from the past and expect us not to notice."

 It is refreshing to admit up front that the premise of your film is a hollow, soulless grab at name recognition, but if that had been the extent of 21 Jump Street's comic sensibility, I couldn't in good conscience recommend it. Just admitting being bereft of originality doesn't automatically give you a pass for still being what you're making fun of.

 Luckily, that's the tip of the iceberg for 21 Jump Street, which makes the most of its stars (one of whom I have to admit never remembered having seen in anything*) and its extended cast, including Ice Cube (as Jump Street's police chief that urges officers to "embrace your stereotypes"), Dave Franco, Chris Parnell, Brie Larson, Ellie Kemper, and Rob Riggle as the Schmidt-hating track coach Mr. Walters.

 Most of 21 Jump Street works because it finds comedy in the way high schools have changed, but also the moronic way that Schmidt and Jenko can't remember their undercover names and end up with the wrong identities. The popular Jenko ends up in AP Chemistry and Schmidt in Drama and on the track team. Again, if it was a one-note joke, things would get old fast, but Tatum and Hill sneak in some actual character development. The drug they're supposed to find ("HFS") comes with its own set of animated "stages" of high (and a montage I swear includes the head explosion from Scanners), and the film also plays an amusing game with action movie tropes. You might want to call it "will it explode."

 Tatum, an actor I really felt nothing about to this point, emerges as the MVP of 21 Jump Street. He goes for broke ridiculing his action lunkhead "type" and the set-up and payoff of the line "Fuck you, science!" still has me chuckling. Jonah Hill also seems to be having fun playing the opposite of his "type" - Schmidt finds himself unexpectedly popular in the new world of eco-friendly, studious, hipster-esque high school, but since I had no expectations whatsoever for Tatum, he knocked it out of the park.

 Quite to my surprise, I laughed and laughed hard during 21 Jump Street, a film that really has no right to be clever or entertaining. So credit to Hill, Bacall, directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, and the cast for making a movie that acknowledges our diminished expectations, and then proceeds to raise the bar for yuks and belly laughs.


 And then there's Reuben Fleischer's 30 Minutes or Less, which is all right but feels a little disjointed. I'd say that I was pretty much on board for whatever Fleischer followed Zombieland with, and when it ended up being a movie about a pizza delivery guy (Jesse Eisenberg) being kidnapped by two losers (Danny McBride and Nick Swarsdon) who strap a bomb to him in order to get $100,000. Not sure what to do, he decides to rob a bank with the help of his friend (Aziz Ansari), whose sister (Dilshad Vadsaria) he also happens to be dating, causing additional tension. That much was evident from the trailers, and it looked like it could be fun.

 The movie opens with dual narratives: on one hand, there's Nick (Eisenberg) and Chet (Ansari), two guys heading in different directions with their lives. Chet is beginning to make the transition to adulthood and Nick is still delivering pizzas, renting DVDs and waiting in front of Chet's apartment for him to get home from teaching. Nick didn't exactly tell Chet about how long he's been "involved" with his sister Kate (Vadsaria), and they have a bit of a blow up.

 Meanwhile, there's Dwayne (McBride) and Travis (Swarsdon), two buddies that lounge around in Dwayne's father (Fred Ward), The Major's mansion. The Major hit the lottery after being a life long Marine and he spends the money on giant TVs and monster trucks while constantly belittling his son for having no ambition. Dwayne wants his dad's money so he can open a tanning salon / brothel, and Nick builds explosives. With the help of Juicy (Bianca Kajlich), a stripper who knows hitman Chango (Michael Peña), they scheme to kill The Major. But they can't do it themselves, and Chango wants a hundred grand to do the job.

 The rest, as you may have guessed, leads to the trailer, which is around the 20 minute mark of the film. Everything beforehand is crammed in so we can get to the central premise of the film. And then things just kind of move along for the next hour. Nick and Chet come up with a plan that requires them to find fake guns, steal a car, make a few "bucket list" stops for the pizza slinger, and then eventually rob a bank twenty minutes later. All the while Dwayne and Travis are following them, so we're still basically following two stories that are but aren't really connected with two sets of semi-likable losers.

 In fact, the problem might be that nobody in 30 Minutes or Less is particularly interesting: all four leads are basically the same and have the same desire to be doing anything other than what they're doing. It isn't until late in the film that McBride's Dwayne begins to develop something resembling a dark side, and by that point Peña's killer-for-hire who gets cheated out of his money suddenly has a good reason to want to kill everybody. I didn't mind the shift from slacker goofy to suddenly violent (the movie is based on a true story that puts a bit of a damper on the comedy) but 30 Minutes or Less never coalesces into a unified narrative.

 The film is funny, to be sure, and in fits and spurts is very funny, but when it ended I couldn't help but think "that's it?" It felt like there was something missing from 30 Minutes or Less, something that made everything click together, that just isn't in the movie. I can't quite put my finger on it, but I was a little underwhelmed to be honest with you.

 There you have it: one is a solid recommendation for a movie I never would have thought was worth anybody's time, and the other is a "I'm not really sure" kind of flick. Tomorrow I'll be back with a Retro Review of Mission: Impossible: III which should dovetail nicely into Thursday's Blogorium Review of Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol. If we're lucky, I might even get past all the navel gazing and self introspection and be able to explain why Young Adult is worth seeing.

 * Update: So Channing Tatum is in Havoc and in War of the Worlds. I did not know that.

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