21 JUMP STREET
Who, aside from maybe Jonah Hill's agent, saw this coming? In an era in which it frequently seems as if Hollywood can do little else but feed on the festering parts of this nation's kitschy past (The Smurfs, Transformers, etc.), there wasn't exactly a clamoring for a big-screen update of an 80s cop show primarily known for putting Johnny Depp on the map any more than there was a demand for a film based on a board game about battleships.
And yet here we arrive at 21 Jump Street, and it actually turns out to be an inviting place to visit. Hill (who co-wrote the script with Michael Bacall) and Channing Tatum respectively play Schmidt and Jenko, two rookie cops assigned to a special unit in which all the officers go undercover as high school students in order to bust various crimes. The outfit's commanding officer (Ice Cube, always a welcome presence) orders the pair to find out who's pushing a deadly drug at a local high school. Jenko, a popular slacker during his own high school days, looks forward to heading back to class, while Schmidt, who was a miserable nerd during that period, dreads it.
But they unexpectedly find their social standings reversed, with Schmidt becoming known for throwing killer parties and Jenko hanging out with the chemistry set. 21 Jump Street offers an acceptable number of hearty laughs (albeit most packed during the first half), yet what's most refreshing about the film is how it acknowledges its own narrative absurdities and retreaded tropes in a manner that's neither forced nor self-congratulatory (love the running gag about exploding vehicles). 21 Jump Street wears its cool comfortably, and its nerdiness just as effectively.
FRIENDS WITH KIDS
The womanizing Jason (Adam Scott) and the unlucky-in-love Julie (Jennifer Westfeldt) watch as their two sets of happily married best friends (Kristen Wiig, John Hamm, Maya Rudolph, Chris O'Dowd -- it's a veritable Bridesmaids reunion!) become miserable and surly toward one another after they start having kids. Not wanting to fall into that trap, Jason and Julie, who hold no attraction for each other, decide to have a child together while maintaining separate lives in every other regard.
So goes the plotline for Friends with Kids, a scintillating seriocomedy written and directed by leading lady Westfeldt (best known for the 2001 indie hit Kissing Jessica Stein). The first 100 minutes are a viewer's dream: wise, witty, emotional, and elevated by a powerhouse supporting cast (Edward Burns turns up as a potential beau for Julie, and even Megan Fox, as Jason's latest girlfriend, isn't bad). Unfortunately, Westfeldt finally succumbs to the peer pressure of those regularly churning out subpar rom-coms, thus spitting out an ending that's as clumsy as it is predictable.
A repeat viewing might temper my anger toward those final five minutes, but for now, what could have sailed through 2012 as one of its best films will have to settle for prominent placement in the also-ran column.
The animated feature film The Lorax is officially called Dr. Seuss' The Lorax, but given the extent to which it perverts Theodor Geisel's classic children's book, Universal Pictures might as well have named it J.K. Rowling's The Lorax or F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Lorax or even Jane Austen's The Lorax.
The central thrust remains the same: A young boy (voiced in the film by Zac Efron) learns that a strange character named the Once-ler (Ed Helms) was responsible for the extinction of trees, despite the protestations of the Lorax (Danny DeVito), a small, walrus-mustached creature who speaks on behalf of nature. Even pushing aside the niggling fact that the studio partnered with numerous corporations to plug the film -- some offering products that especially go against the book's environmentally friendly message (a Mazda SUV?) -- what appears on screen is a garish, unappealing mess, with Dr. Seuss' gentle push for nature over industry turned into an obnoxious screed populated with dull new characters and strapped with a satchel of forgettable songs.
Because this comes from the same people who created the superior Despicable Me, there's a perpetual struggle between cute little bears and cute little fishies to emerge as the equivalent of that previous picture's cute little Minions -- nobody wins. On the positive side, this movie at least managed to infuriate right-wing dimwits like Fox's Lou Dobbs, who accused the filmmakers of trying to "indoctrinate our children" with liberal messages -- stuff like nurturing the planet, respecting your neighbors, consuming responsibly, and other similarly sick and twisted ideas.