Well, folks, I hope you feel like laughing this week because three rock solid comedies will be slipping onto screens: 21 Jump Street, Jeff Who Lives At Home, and Casa De Mi Padre.
They are all headlined by established stars like Jonah Hill, Jason Segel, and Will Ferrell and yet all three movies are strange little comedy experiments made to please their makers rather than the masses. Only a handful of comedies like that slip through the system in any given year, so the fact that we’re getting three of these bad boys in the same week qualifies as a minor miracle. Which one is the best is a matter of taste, so take a little peek at the descriptions below and decide which way you want your funny bone tickled in the dark this weekend (okay, I didn’t have to make that sound so dirty, but it was fun wasn’t it?).
The Good: 21 Jump Street
Yep, the movie that was based on 21 Jump Street is quite good. I’ll bet you didn’t see that coming. On paper, this should be another Starsky and Hutch, a tongue-in-cheek action movie with lots of stars and meager ambitions that is instantly forgettable. While Jonah Hill’s update of the '80s camp classic is certainly frivolous entertainment, it’s at least frivolous entertainment with a brain.
The filmmakers and actors know that audiences don’t expect much out of the movie, so they acknowledge that fact up front and then spend the rest of the movie subverting and toying with the very concept of a 21 Jump Street movie. It’s a meta action/comedy in the Hot Fuzz mode that might not boast the comically insane originality of that flick, but certainly plays a hell of a lot better than any movie with the title 21 Jump Street should.
For the first half of the movie, the comedy is focused on toying with the norms and conventions of high school comedies. Hill and Channing Tatum (who is better in this film that he normally is, possibly because he’s able to mock his dumb handsome guy persona) are two young cops assigned to go undercover in high school, so it’s assumed that Hill will get in with the geeks while Tatum will join the popular crowd. But high school has changed so Hill’s wisecracks and smartypants pop culture references earn him popularity, while Tatum's jock douchebaggery lands him in the loser bin.
It’s a clever twist that the filmmakers get a lot of mileage out of until the audience will start to wonder what happened to all the guns and explosions we expect from an action/comedy. At that point Hill and Tatum’s characters start asking that question themselves and when the car chases 'n’ shoot-outs finally arrive they are comically over-the-top with the leads gleefully acknowledging how silly their movie has become.
The self-conscious humor surprisingly never verges into navel-gazing. There are enough plot twists, character reveals, and belly laughs for the movie to chug along properly with just enough winks to the audience for intelligent viewers to never feel like they are being insulted. You’ll still be primarily laughing at Jonah Hill swearing up a storm and making anal sex jokes, but at least you’ll know the movie is by smart people who also happen to enjoy creative uses of the f-bomb and anal sex jokes.
While Hill and Tatum are a surprisingly hilarious mismatched onscreen team, the secret to the movie’s success might be co-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller. Those guys cut their teeth in animation, creating the cult comedy series Clone High and the underrated family CGI-fest Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. Both those projects boasted a certain cine-literate charm and subversive streak of humor that elevated them above standard family fare and those qualities carry over into 21 Jump Street perfectly. They are smart filmmakers who don’t mind letting the audience know it, while still reveling in sex and potty humor to remain a healthy arm’s length away from being pretentious.
Hopefully this won’t be Lord and Miller’s last crack at live action filmmaking because they’ve got the talent for a long career. Hill as well deserves the movie to be a success because he’s made some smart career choices for a guy in his early 20s who suddenly became a superstar. I never thought I’d say this, but I’m rooting for 21 Jump Street to be a hit. The concept may have been tired, but a few talented lunatics used it to take over the asylum and it would be nice if that happened in Hollywood more often.
The Pretty Good: Jeff Who Lives at Home
Jeff Who Lives at Home is the second Hollywood outing for sibling mumblecore directors Jay and Mark Duplass, following the sadly underrated Cyrus. Once again they manage to translate their distinct brand of melancholic character comedy to a larger scale, bringing in name actors without sacrificing their wonderfully cringe-inducing awkward comedy.
Jason Segel stars as Jeff, a 30-year-old man who, well, lives at home with his mother. His older brother Pat (Ed Helms) left the nest, but remains a bit of a manchild. He has a job in the paint game and is married to the dependable Judy Greer, while still remaining immature enough to hold business meetings at Hooters and buy a Porsche without telling his wife.
Then there is the boys’ mother (Susan Sarandon), who coddled them too much growing up and now plays the role of a single working mother to Jeff in his 30s. All she wants is for her overgrown stoner boy to fix a broken wooden shutter for her birthday, but Jeff has other plans.
The movie opens with Jeff delivering a hilarious monologue (on the toilet) about how much the movie Signs means to him, because of how it shows the ways small decisions and fate lead to “a perfect moment.” He misguidedly dedicates his life to that principle, following random signs and hoping it will all lead to his own moment.
When he starts his day with a bong hit and a wrong number asking for Kevin, he sets out to follow any Kevin he can in search of meaning, eventually discovering his sister-in-law’s infidelity along the way. It’s a hysterically humiliating adventure that eventually ties together every member of the family. It all builds to a climax that wouldn’t be out of place in an M. Night Shyamalan movie and it’s right there on the finish line that the movie falls apart ever so slightly.
The Duplass brothers' movies walk a very fine line between comedy and drama. The first scene of their debut The Puffy Chair acts as a mission statement of sorts by showcasing an awkwardly funny dinner between a couple that suddenly becomes a painful fight without warning. Jeff Who Lives at Home is probably their funniest film and therein lies the problem with the ending. The movie plays almost as straight comedy for the first hour or so, before somewhat clumsily turning into an almost spiritual drama in the closing moments. The Duplass brothers make it clear that’s where they are heading from the Signs monologue, but the conclusion is simply too magical for their aesthetic of hard luck realism.
The cast is uniformly excellent, particularly Segel who has never had a role this multi-dimensional before. Inconsistencies aside, the filmmaking is strong. It was always a bit of a long shot that the Duplasses would ever find themselves moving from DV features to Hollywood, but they’ve made the transition remarkably well. Now let’s just hope that Jeff Who Lives at Home is successful enough for them to threepeat the trick (hopefully a little more successfully next time).
The Excelente (En Espanol): Casa de Mi Padre
The latest Will Ferrell movie is in Spanish and subtitled. Yep, you read that right, but don’t worry, this isn’t some grating attempt from Ferrell to be taken seriously as an actor with a foreign art film. Nope, this is the comedian’s love letter to cornball Telemundo-style entertainment. It’s one of those movie geek comedies that have become a bit of a subgenre since Grindhouse, a movie that uses deliberately stilted dialogue, idiotic plotting, clumsy filmmaking, and sub-soap opera acting for comedic effect.
If you’ve seen Black Dynamite, Hobo With a Shotgun, or Machete, you’ll know what to expect and should have a blast. If you’ve never heard of those movies, there’s a good chance that Casa de Mi Padre isn’t for you. It takes a certain love of bad filmmaking to enjoy these kinds of comedies and not everyone shares that ironic love of trash.
The plot isn’t really worth getting into that much since it deliberately doesn’t make much sense. Let’s just say that Ferrell gets caught up in the middle of a drug war between his brother and the local heavy. Those characters are played by Mexico’s greatest young actors, Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal, and they clearly have a blast putting together some deliberately terrible performances (Luna in particular has one shoot-out in which he never puts down his scotch that is comedy bliss). Then there’s also a love story between Ferrell and the beautiful Genesis Rodriguez, but it’s mainly just there to set up a sex scene comprised of gratuitous ass shots. That’s either a good thing or a bad thing depending on how funny you consider the male ass.
Casa de Mi Padre is an absolutely hilarious movie for a specific audience. Writer Andrew Steele and director Matt Piedmont (longtime Ferrell collaborators through SNL and Funny Or Die) clearly know their bad movie cliches and have a ball filling the screen with awkwardly placed mannequin extras, editing flubs, and the worst tiger puppet in the history of cinema. If you find that sort of thing funny, the film is a joy. If you don’t, it’ll be an irritating 85 minutes.
Either way, you do have to admire a star like Will Ferrell using his name to get a wacko movie like this on screens. He may make some mainstream fluff, but the guy is still true to his surrealist comedy roots and that definitely elevates him above the Adam Sandlers of the world. If a movie in which a major action scene is stopped midway and replaced by a note from the filmmakers apologizing for not being able to complete the sequence sounds funny to you, then consider your pants soiled when you buy a ticket to Casa de Mi Padre. If not, don’t even bother trying. This ain’t for you.