Catching up with cinematic comedies
Published: Wednesday, March 21, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, March 21, 2012 00:03
Last week saw the opening of several notable comedies — cop comedy “21 Jump Street,” telenovella parody “Casa de mi Padre,” and existential comedy “Jeff, Who Lives at Home.”
These films have been released to varying levels of critical and commercial success. “21 Jump Street” opened to a $35 million box office and was well-reviewed, while “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” opened much smaller but also got positive notes.
The Oracle looks at these last two comedies and lets you know whether they’re worth your attention.
“Jeff, Who Lives at Home”
Writer-directors Mark and Jay Duplass have come a long way from 2005’s “The Puffy Chair” and their origins in mumblecore — a genre with improvising, amateur actors and shaky cameras.
These elements are still evident in their new film “Jeff, Who Lives at Home,” but those amateurs have been replaced with Jason Segel and Ed Helms, and their budget has now been expanded to $10 million. The film is not always successful in its subject — destiny — but it always remains deeply charming.
The title character, who is obsessed with destiny and the film “Signs,” starts on a mundane journey to pick up wood glue for his mother Sharon (Susan Sarandon) and pursue a mysterious Kevin. While out, he runs into his brother Pat (Helms), and the two investigate whether Pat’s wife (Judy Greer) is having an affair. Meanwhile, Sharon tries to find which secret admirer is sending her notes and instant messages in her office job.
“Jeff, Who Lives at Home” seems like the Duplass brothers’ most mainstream film yet, even including a car crash and chase scene set to The Spin Doctors’ “Two Princes.” However, the movie is most effective during the small moments where it conveys the two main characters’ deep existential crises.
Both Jeff and Pat are at an impasse in their lives, right down to their vague and undefined facial hair. Even though Pat may be more superficially successful than his brother and look down on him from Hooters restaurants, he is emotionally languishing within his marriage and connects with his brother in an earnest hotel scene.
Segel is spot-on as Jeff, perfectly embodying a directionless 20-something, and Helms gets the chance to flex his emotional muscles a little more than in comedies such as “Cedar Rapids” and “The Hangover.” Sarandon is also quite appealing in her office subplot, which offers a return for “Commando” actress Rae Dawn Chong.
Overall, the film achieves its modest goals of further pushing into the mainstream the Duplass brothers’ brand of humor, improvisation and emotion seen in “Cyrus” and “Baghead.” Even if the film is never as deep as Jeff’s life changes by the end, “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” is another subtly funny and dramatic entry in the brothers’ filmography.
“21 Jump Street”
Initially, “21 Jump Street” might have seemed like a disastrous idea. It was another big-budget remake of a retro television series, with co-writer and star Jonah Hill losing 40 pounds to fit a serious action hero mold.
Still, having “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller at the helm and a talented cast offered a glimmer of hope. It comes as a pleasant surprise, then, that “21 Jump Street” is deeply funny and even occasionally insightful about high school social structures.
The film follows misfit Schmidt (Hill) and athletic Jenko (Channing Tatum), two horribly incompetent cops who are reassigned as undercover high school students in search of the supplier of a synthetic drug. Yet when they return to high school, their positions switch as Schmidt unwittingly becomes popular and Jenko starts hanging out with the school nerds.
Michael Bacall and Hill’s script cleverly and believably reverses high school cliques as the sensitive Schmidt becomes friends with the new environmentally friendly, Berkeley-hopeful popular kids led by Eric (Dave Franco). Meanwhile, Jenko joins the smart kids simply because he similarly enjoys hacking phones and blowing things up.
“21 Jump Street” lies somewhere between Bacall’s previous scripts — the non-stop jokes and references of the great “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” and the partying of the far more questionable “Project X.” To the script’s credit, it never attempts to follow the television series and recognizes its own absurdity, such as a character’s observation about Jenko’s unrealistically muscular high school body: “When did you go through puberty? Like seven or something?”
In fact, the film very much resembles Lord and Miller’s own short-lived MTV animated series “Clone High” and its supremely silly, self-referential high school setting. “21 Jump Street” moves at the frenetic pace of a Saturday morning cartoon, with action scenes such as a freeway car chase coming about as close as live-action ever has to resembling a cartoon.
Hill and Tatum both prove themselves to be skilled at the film’s hyper farce comedy, and Ice Cube is given a chance to be profane again as Captain Dickson. The cast is also loaded with great comedians such as Nick Offerman, Ellie Kemper and Rob Riggle.
During the last fourth of the film, “21 Jump Street” settles into a more generic action-comedy template, including a gross-out moment that is somehow both safe and completely disgusting. Yet the film surprises at so many turns up until that point, a little formula can be forgiven.