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21 Jump Street

Friday, March 16th, 2012

21 Jump Street is self-aware. It knows that, for instance, co-star Channing Tatum looks like he’s “40 fucking years old” despite having to pass off as a high-school student. And it knows that it’s just another rehash in an avalanche of rehashes, as a police chief admits to his freshly minted underlings when he’s talking about resurrecting an undercover program from the ‘80s. “We’re completely out of ideas,” he says. “All we do is recycle shit from the past.”

Co-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs) and scripter Michael Bacall (sharing a story credit with co-star Jonah Hill) are the puppet masters behind the R-rated comedy’s self-awareness. (Yes, it’s a comedy. Forget what you saw in the decade of neon and big hair!) Hill and Tatum, former geek and cool kid, respectively, play the undercover cops assigned to “Jump Street,” a sorta-precinct run out of a dilapidated church by Captain Dickson (Ice Cube) for young-looking (or, in their case, -acting) officers tasked with infiltrating schools to suss out drug dealers. Considering that there are about a dozen dick jokes in the film’s first five minutes, it’s likely that the name of Ice Cube’s character is supposed to be a pretty weak gag, too.

In fact, the entire movie seems to be based on dick jokes and cursing, both prevalent enough to rival Superbad (Hill’s filthily hilarious star-maker). For equal opportunity, there’s a “vagina” punch line, too. (Sigh, aren’t we tired of those yet? Somehow, “My mother is such a dick” is just funnier.) But this time, it’s too piled on (particularly Dickson’s unsoaped mouth) to be a genuine, albeit facile, source of comedy. Better lines come from supporting cast members such as SNL’s Chris Parnell, whose drama-coach character starts off an anecdote with, “I remember doing cocaine with Willie Nelson’s horse….” And Tatum’s frequent outbursts of “Fuck you, [RANDOM THING]!” only get a real laugh when his character spits out, “Fuck you, Glee!”, blaming the show for the “backward and unnatural” hierarchy of “cool” he and his partner find in modern-day high school, i.e. the environmentalists, theater nerds, and A-students ruling the hallways.

Overall, 21 Jump Street proceeds as you expect it to. Schmidt (Hill) and Jenko (Tatum) are teenage enemies who become best buds at the police academy and are designated brothers to carry out their mission of finding the person supplying synthetic drugs to high-school students. They both live at Schmidt’s house (cue overbearing mommy jokes) and mix up their identities and hence class schedules in front of the principal (cue fish-out-of-water jokes). While there, they make friends, grow crushes, and generally get in too deep. And it wouldn’t be an opposites-attract bromance if one of them didn’t get his feelings hurt by the other!

Because this is, after all, a story about cops, the film morphs into that weird action/comedy hybrid that goes all Pineapple Express at the end, i.e. a little too explicit on the violence. (Though one of the funnier jokes involves things that don’t blow up.) Unlike Pineapple Express, you feel a little weary by the time the credits roll after watching the stars try a lot too hard to win laughs, only a fraction of which really deliver. It’s likely that Hill’s shout-out on the story idea spurred him to put a little extra into his shtick — once more, with mugging! — but when you’re fucking with a classic, it takes more than a parade of penises to get it just right.


Thursday, October 20th, 2011

Roll the tape: A tubby ballplayer who was always uneasy about stealing bases decides to go for it one game. He trots and then slides awkwardly into second, safe — yet the crowd is laughing. They’re not cackling at his inelegant achievement, however. They’re laughing because dude hit a homer and didn’t even realize it. He’s quickly enlightened and proceeds to bumble around the bases, grinning like he just won the lottery.

“How can you not be romantic about baseball?” says Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) in Moneyball after seeing the footage. The scene is near the end of the film, after Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A’s, had gone through a tough period of teetering toward falling rather out of love with the sport who chewed him up and spit him out as a pro player, then threatened to do the same when the GM dared to try a new and seemingly loony system of recruiting crappy players on a tight budget. To the A’s coach (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and head scouts, Beane and his out-of-nowhere right-hand man/egghead, Peter (Jonah Hill), were the villains. Until they became the heroes.

But Moneyball isn’t about the sport as much as it is about challenging a religion. The film opens in 2001, with the A’s losing the opening around of the American League playoffs to the infamously much-deeper-pocketed New York Yankees. Director Bennett Miller (Capote) supplies footage that’s distractingly too grain-ified (this is only 10 years ago, after all), but the sentiment is clear. The A’s are devastated. Beane is pissed. And as soon as the offseason wheelings-and-dealings start, he homes in to the team’s owner about their shameful lack of funds. He doesn’t get any more. In meetings with the scouts, Beane emphasizes, “There are rich teams, and there are poor teams. Then there’s 50 feet of crap. And then there’s us.” Nobody has a solution for him; they just keep pitching him players he can’t afford to replace the three semi-stars he just lost.

Nobody has a solution — that is, until he approaches the Cleveland Indians to haggle for someone. One whisper to the GM from a kid who seems to know more about Twinkies than trades and the deal is off. That kid is Peter, and Beane wants to know why he has so much power. After some awkward stammering and insistence that he’s nobody’s nepotism project, Peter reveals why he’s got so much clout. Armed with an economics degree from Yale, Peter’s figured out a numbers system that reveals how some not-so-desirable players earning bargain-basement salaries can be put together to form a winning team. Beane hires Peter away that night. The uproar is immediate and, as the A’s initially losing season wears on, ugly.

Moneyball’s based on a true story (with Peter’s character given a different name and background for legal reasons), adapted from a Michael Lewis book by Steven Zaillian and some punk named Aaron Sorkin. Sorkin’s last home run was The Social Network, and Moneyball has a similar ebb-and-flow. Scenes unfold organically, with genuine conversations taking place instead of quick, too-clever back-and-forths. (The humor is tamped down to sporadic moments of low-key joshing, such as when a player who’s learning first base confesses that his biggest fear is the ball being hit in his general direction.) Miller deepens the tone by lingering on characters well after others have walked away, their exchanges over. You don’t watch this film as much as you settle in with it. If you don’t like sports movies, don’t worry — there isn’t a lot of actual ball played onscreen; the true game is what goes on behind the scenes.

Pitt and especially Hill are low-key, too, though Pitt’s Beane has more of a quiet intensity — he throws his share of shit when he gets pushed too far — while Peter is just sorta there, almost shell-shocked to be so. Beane has a young daughter whom he doesn’t have custody of; during their one visit, the stunned pride that floods Pitt’s face while she sings a lovely song and accompanies herself on a guitar is unforgettable. So is Beane’s backbone — steeled when he failed as a player, though having had been heralded as the hot new thing — with him refusing to take no from and even firing detractors of his new system and following it to the letter even when it means the A’s sinking deeper and deeper in the standings. Moneyball is more about a man than a game, and with the team it’s assembled, its creators have won.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall

Sunday, April 20th, 2008

My apologies for this mere blurb, hope to expand on it shortly:

Much, much more to love


Breaking up is hard to do when you’re wearing nothing but a pout and were just regaling your soon-to-be-ex with a celebratory wang-flapping to welcome her home.

Yes, Forgetting Sarah Marshall is another Apatowian romance, and once again the It producer and his crew have conjured fresh, dirty ways to make rom-com mush tolerable. Jason Segel earns the bulk of the credit here, though, not only starring as Peter, the musician dumped by his titular actress girlfriend (Kristen Bell), but also penning a debut script that doesn’t completely shun genre contrivances but feels believable nonetheless.

More important, it’s funny: Segel’s melancholic, genial Peter out-Everymans Seth Rogen with quips that are quick without seeming crack-fueled, and a supporting cast including Jack McBrayer, Jonah Hill, Bill Hader, Mila Kunis, Paul Rudd, and Russell Brand help ease/exacerbate Peter’s misery when he arrives at a Hawaiian resort to lick his wounds, only to run into Sarah and her new beau.