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Originally published in The California Aggie

Judging by the audience reaction at last week’s early screening of 21 Jump Street, I can say with some certainty that your enjoyment of the film will be directly proportional to your enjoyment of dick jokes.

Because there are a lot of them. A whole lot. Too many to count, actually. And with a story by frat boy d’jour Jonah Hill, you can’t really expect anything else. But can I tell you something? Despite the fact that I have a relatively low tolerance for crude humor of any kind, I had a big stupid grin on my face for most of this movie.

HOW CAN THAT BE?

For starters, it’s hard not to go into 21 Jump Street with low expectations. The film draws its inspiration from the 1980s television show of the same name, which even then, despite the presence of an up-and-coming Johnny Depp, wasn’t exactly highly reviewed. Its premise feels implausible at best: two buddy cops (played by Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum) are assigned to work for a program called 21 Jump Street, which places young-looking police officers undercover in high schools. And seriously, Channing Tatum? Since when is he supposed to be a comedian?

But when the film wants to be smart, it succeeds admirably. When Hill’s smart-but-awkward Schmidt and Tatum’s dumb-jock Jenko are enrolled in a local high school to bust a suspected drug ring, both see the assignment as a chance to relive their own high school days — painful for Schmidt, of course, and awesome for Jenko.

But high school has changed. The smart kids are actually cool and the jocks who “don’t try at anything” (as Jenko puts it?) — yeah, they’re just laughed at. Suddenly high school doesn’t seem so bad for Schmidt, and what could have been yet another clichéd portrayal of high school becomes a sly commentary on today’s environment-loving, UC Berkeley-bound teenagers.

Hill, fresh off a best supporting actor Oscar nomination for Moneyball, has a clever, honest chemistry with Tatum, who brings a surprising amount of heart to the outcasted Jenko. There’s something undeniably sweet about the way Jenko befriends a group of science nerds, playing with throwing stars and doing chemistry experiments while Schmidt hangs out with cool guy Eric (played by Dave Franco, James’ little brother) and love interest Molly (Brie Larson).

And then come the car chases, guns and crude sex jokes. Why? The film doesn’t need them. In fact, they take the momentum away from some truly funny moments at the high school and at Schmidt’s parents’ house (where he and Jenko live while undercover). You get the sense while watching Schmidt and Jenko race down the highway, shooting at the bad guys, that you’ve seen this all before. Which, honestly, you have.

Working with a script by Michael Bacall (writer of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (co-directors of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs) keep the plot and jokes moving quickly, stopping only for the action sequences. Look, I understand what the target demographic for this movie is. Yes, I fully accept that they want to see guys shooting big guns and gosh darn it, they’re going to get it. But can Hollywood ever stop for one second and recognize a good thing when they have it and NOT ruin it with yet another car chase?

Fans of the original television show will find the film’s crude tone and winking self-awareness a far cry from the PG-rated exploits of Officers Penhall, Hanson, Hoffs and Ioki. But as a fellow Jump Street-er, it thrilled me just to see the words “21 Jump Street” fill the screen during the opening credits. And that cameo you’ve been hearing about? It’s exactly what you’re hoping for.

Even if it does include a dick joke.

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