21 JUMP STREET
As an undercover police officer who, in 21 Jump Street, can say to his platonic partner "I cherish you, man" in a way that's both hysterical and intensely touching, Jonah Hill possesses a rare gift for completely unembarrassed sincerity. By now, it should go without saying that Hill is a sensational verbal comedian and a fearless physical one. But as in his bro-mantic scenes opposite Michael Cera in Superbad, the actor brings to this action comedy something few others would think to: absolute honesty and emotional transparency. Hill is funny as hell here, but his character is never a joke.
Yet the delightful shock of this parody of and homage to the late-'80s TV drama - a series that famously cast Johnny Depp as a pretty-boy cop who infiltrates schools and youth hangouts disguised as a student - is that Hill's co-star actually matches him in earnestness and hilarity, and his name is Channing Tatum.
I've been a Tatum fan - or, as less generous types might prefer to label it, a Tatum apologist - for several years now. He's not the most expressive presence, but I love that he appears to truly mean, and feel, what he says when he talks, and consequently, Tatum's lack of actorly artifice tends to connect you to his characters in ways that more accomplished actors can't pull off with similar ease. (Particularly in Stop-Loss, and in his hospital-bedside scene with Richard Jenkins in Dear John, Tatum's pain reads as genuine because it's so lacking in traditional performance technique.) Still, barring the mere hints we were given via the Ron Howard debacle The Dilemma, nothing on Tatum's résumé suggested that he was also capable of being the inventive, quick-witted buffoon that he is in 21 Jump Street, or that, like his on-screen teammate, he could so expertly blend comic expertise with big-hearted empathy. Written by Michael Bacall (with a story co-credited to Hill) and directed by Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs helmers Phil Lord and Chris Miller, this speedy, clever lark is fantastic for all sorts of reasons, but none better than its madly inspired pairing of Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, who do more than make you laugh here; against all conceivable odds, they make you care.
Good God, though, do they ever make you laugh. Borrowing the TV series' hook, the movie finds Hill and Tatum playing disgraced officers Schmidt and Jenko, sent by their captain (a riotously cranky Ice Cube) to suss out the drug supplier at a local high school. Posing as brothers and forced, to Schmidt's humiliation, to share a bedroom in his parents' house, the best buds and former, decidedly unfriendly schoolmates find much has changed in the seven years since they graduated; Schmidt's affable, nerdy sensitivity is now seen as admirable, and Jenko's über-macho posturing is routinely scoffed at. Somewhat predictable though it is, this turning-the-tables plotline begins yielding wonderful results right off the bat, with Hill's Schmidt thrilled for the opportunity to enjoy the high-school experience he was previously denied, and Tatum's Jenko baffled by the now politically correct student body. ("I blame Glee," he says, morosely.) But as 21 Jump Street continues, its subversion of expectations grows exponentially, and does so because for all of the spectacular silliness on display, it never loses touch with the essential sweetness at its core.
There are scenes in Lord's and Miller's offering as funny and memorable as any the movies have given us in years. The sequence that finds our heroes proving their trustworthiness to a school dealer (the charismatic, eccentric Dave Franco, younger brother to the charismatic, eccentric James) by sampling the school's new go-to drug is a seven-minute masterpiece of type-A lunacy. (The kicker, in which Tatum ferociously scribbles his interpretation of a scientific equation on a chalkboard, ends with a three-word punchline that might already be a new classic.) And with sharp roles, some of them mere cameos, enacted by the likes of Brie Larson, Rob Riggle, Chris Parnell, Nick Offerman, Ellie Kemper, and Johnny Simmons, there's plenty of intelligent amusement to be found even beyond the film's leads. Yet it's in the magic of Hill's and Tatum's superior, effortlessly endearing teamwork - their determination to keep the comedic proceedings grounded in reality and humanity even during the Michael Bay-esque chases and shoot-outs - that ultimately makes 21 Jump Street so rewarding. I applaud the filmmakers for the extended action blow-out that occurred while Hill was dressed as Peter Pan and Tatum was dressed as potassium nitrate. (Seriously.) But I applaud Hill and Tatum even more for being so naturally entertaining together that those costumes are almost superfluous.
CASA DE MI PADRE
Like me, you may have seen the previews for the Will Ferrell comedy Casa de Mi Padre - an 80-minute spoof of Mexican telenovelas filmed as a cheesy drive-in feature and performed almost entirely in Spanish - and presumed it was going to be a one-joke movie. It is. And that one joke proves to be an exquisite one. From Christina Aguilera's wailing of its opening title song to its closing image of a white tiger (portrayed by a wonderfully unconvincing white-tiger puppet), director Matt Piedmont's cheeky farce is satire played so straight that it almost morphs into performance art; with its tortured family dynamics and slow-motion gunfights and heaving breasts - all presented with joyous tackiness and utter seriousness - it's the Andy Kaufman movie Andy Kaufman never lived to make. (Not that I would have wanted even one second less of Will Ferrell, whose bone-deep commitment to his Mexican simpleton here is laceratingly funny.) Numerous repeat viewings will eventually, probably, narrow down my list of favorite moments to a dozen or so, many of them involving the perfectly cast and endlessly entertaining Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna (a most welcome Y tu mama tambien reunion!), Genesis Rodriguez, and Nick Offerman, who just made himself a film-comedy essential, and a deserved one, with one weekend's worth of releases. But with Casa de Mi Padre chockablock with cackle-worthy swipes at continuity errors, product placement, stock footage, and even faulty subtitles (I have to believe the misspelling of heroin as "heroine" was totally intentional), nothing in recent movies has given me the giggles quite like the film's action pausing for an unexpected, and lengthy, scrolled apology from second assistant cameraman Emilio Sanchez. Piedmont's cinematic spoof is always smart. In this one instance, it rivals the best of Monty Python, and that's not so much smart as perfect.
Follow Mike on Twitter at Twitter.com/MikeSchulzNow.