22 Jump Street, chemistry and slapstick comedy

Feature Ryan Lambie 6 Jun 2014 - 05:48

With 22 Jump Street out now, we look at the screen pairing of Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, and their own brand of slapstick comedy...

NB: If you hated 21 Jump Street, you may want to skip this article.

There’s a moment early in 22 Jump Street where Deputy Chief Hardy (a returning Nick Offerman) jokes openly about the rules of movies sequels: “Do the same thing again,” he deadpans, “and everyone’s happy.”

It’s this kind of self-referential humour which could be seen to mark 22 Jump Street out as a post-modern comedy, yet the greater percentage of its means of getting laughs are as old as the hills: insults, misunderstandings, pratfalls and wilfully bad jokes. The winning formula was set up, of course, in 2012‘s 21 Jump Street - a large-screen adaptation of the 80s TV show of the same name, which, it’s probably fair to say, wasn’t exactly the most hotly-anticipated film on the schedules that year.

To our absolute surprise, 21 Jump Street emerged as one of the freshest and funniest comedies of 2012, thanks in no small part to the directorial skills of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (who’d previously partnered up to make Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs, in 2009), screenwriter Michael Bacall, and the unlikely pairing of Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum. As hapless undercover detectives Schmidt and Jenko, Hill and Tatum established a comedy duo with real chemistry and timing - Tatum, in particular, demonstrated a capacity for comedy which few could have predicted before 21 Jump Street bumbled into our multiplexes.

The plot - which saw Schmidt and Jenko pose as high school students in order to smash a drug ring - provided the launch pad for a scattershot array of raucous, childish, violent yet ultimately good-natured humour. Not everything worked, but there were an abundance of moments where the talents of everyone involved clicked into place, and the results were utterly sublime. 

As 22 Jump Street openly confesses, the sequel is simply more of the same, and it says a lot about the strengths of the acting, writing and direction that the movie feels just as vital as the first one did. There are many, many reasons for this - most of them touched on in our review earlier this week - but there’s one aspect of the Jump Street movies worth focusing on in a little more detail: its skilful use of physical comedy.

The inherent value in Hill and Tatum’s wildly differing statures is there to be seen in every poster or promo image: the former diminutive and thick-set, the latter tall and positively Olympian. What unites these two very different characters is their childlike earnestness and capacity for both extraordinary physical feats and utter ineptitude.

Before 21 Jump Street, Jonah Hill repeatedly demonstrated his abilities as a comic actor in a range of films, from Superbad to The Wolf Of Wall Street. That he’s so great in 21 Jump Street and this year’s sequel isn’t, therefore, much of a shock. But what was surprising, at least two years ago, was how well Hill’s style of acting meshed with Tatum’s.

Although full of quotable lines and bizarre, off-the-cuff moments, some of the best gags in 21 Jump Street were physical, such as Schmidt and Jenko’s riotously over-the-top celebration (complete with a gun fired jubilantly in the air) after successfully apprehending a drug pusher in a park. Or the improvised moment where Channing Tatum crashes a music class and wrecks havoc while high on drugs, or Jonah Hill’s similarly drugged-up antics during a relay race. 

Together, they’re the inheritors of a brand of slapstick comedy which harks right back to the earliest years of cinema, and such performers as Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton or The Three Stooges. If anything, 21 Jump Street is even more physical than its predecessor, with one early stunt - involving Tatum, Hill, a truck and a bungee cord - satisfying both as a piece of old-school slapstick and gonzo action moment. 22 Jump Street directly references the Three Stooges in one of its later gags, where Hill and Tatum attempt to shove their way through a doorway at the same time and end up wedged in place - it’s a time-worn routine spruced up for a 21st century audience.

The physical humour isn’t restricted to Tatum and Hill, either. Ice Cube, whose appearance in 21 Jump Street was brief yet indelible, gets a higher profile in the sequel, and he’s magnificent in every scene. His intensity is so pronounced that we can’t help but laugh at just about everything he says and does; like Private Pyle in the presence of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, Ice Cube’s Captain Dickson is all the funnier because he’s so ferociously angry. There’s a scene in 22 Jump Street where he simply sits and stares at another character with unveiled fury, and at the screening we attended, it raised one of the loudest and most sustained peals of laughter in the entire film.

Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s style of filmmaking is particularly suited to this kind of physical comedy. It could be that their grounding in animation has given them a razor-sharp sense of timing and pacing which most other directors lack. Wherever their skill comes from, they make a deceptively difficult form of comedy look effortless. 

Admittedly, the Jump Street movies' brand of comedy isn't the most highbrow in cinema. But then again, the films are also peppered with far cleverer humour than at first meets the eye; 22 Jump Street contains some smart, fleeting references to Woody Allen's Annie Hall, and one utterly toe-curling verbal nod to Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. There are also sly jokes about acting ("Don't talk while I'm getting into character") and one great dig at the relative merits of scripted versus improvised comedy.

At the centre of all the laughs, whether they're verbal, visual or physical, there's one thing that holds the Jump Street movies together: an overarching sense of tenderness. Schmidt and Jenko are, as well as inept, clumsy and idiotic, also good-natured and honest. Like Laurel and Hardy or countless other unlikely comedy pairings before them, Tatum and Hill possess a unique screen chemistry that is impossible to manufacture.

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