Thursday, June 26, 2014

22 JUMP STREET Is More of the Same, But Totally In On the Joke

22 JUMP STREET Review:

- Much has been written about the comedy sequel. Historically, most simply just aren't that good, and many critics and commentators have tried to understand why that is. Essays and think-pieces ponder the nature of comedy and joke-telling. "Comedy is all about surprise and novelty," so therefore a sequel inherently loses what made the original compelling. "Since all the obvious jokes have already happened in the first film, a second one is just a broken record." "There's too much pressure to repeat what worked in the first film, and the result is that a sequel feels played out," etc. All true, to an extent. But really, none of that is impossible to overcome with great jokes and smart writing. Good comedy sequels are possible, and they do exist. And 22 JUMP STREET is one of them.

What's interesting is that directors Chris Lord and Phil Miller, and their team of writers, seem semi-obsessed with not just making a sequel, but with this very *idea* of sequels. After the massive creative success that was The Lego Movie, Lord and Miller are now established as guys who take ideas that shouldn't work, but make them work - with a quirky sensibility that tends to explore the film's concept at a meta level. Okay, so 22 JUMP STREET may not be an obvious film to go that route with, but hey, neither was The Lego Movie. And neither was the original 21 Jump Street movie. The pair took a reboot idea that felt unnecessary and pointless and made it its own thing, and basically made fun of the very concept of pointless reboots. In turn, 22 Jump Street is filled with jokes about being a sequel, about the nature of sequels, and many fourth-wall-breaking gags that are fully self-aware that we're watching a sequel that could and maybe should, inherently, suck. What this means is that for every moment in the movie that could feel cliched or contrived, Lord and Miller are able to coat it with a very heavy dose of self-aware, self-referential humor.

And that helps 22 JUMP STREET feel light, breezy, and in on the joke. What makes it work is that the writing is, mostly, very sharp. And, Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum are once again at their best, perfectly pulling off the big, silly, and self-aware tone that the movie is going for. The two are, again, a fantastic and very funny odd couple. Hill is one of the best at doing tightly-wound comedic schtick, and there's a line in the movie that hilariously sort of sums him up: "you look like a 30-year-old 8th grader." It's that mix of child-like innocence and past-his-years neuroses that makes the dude so funny. As for Tatum, I still find myself surprised at just how good his comic timing and delivery is. I wouldn't mind seeing him stick to comedy, because while he's been solid in his more dramatic roles, he seriously kills it in these movies.

The leads are also accompanied by a very, very strong group of supporting actors. Of special mention is Jillian Bell (Workaholics) as an uptight antagonist who becomes Hill's nemesis. Bell is so great on shows like Workaholics and Eastbound & Down - it's great to see her get a prominent role in this movie. Some of the best scenes in 22 Jump Street are her and Hill playing off one another. Ice Cube is also back and very funny as Hill and Tatum's gruff, hard-ass of a boss. Rob Riggle and Dave Franco return with brief but funny cameos, and Nick Offerman pops up to deliver some meta/funny dialogue as only he can. Amber Stevens is pretty solid as a love interest for Hill (though seemingly way, way out of his league). Peter Stormare is the one who feels just a little bit wasted as the movie's Big Bad - seemingly a little too reigned-in and run-of-the-mill considering that he's Peter freaking Stormare.

One random but cool casting thing in the film: Tatum's new-found best bud is a long-haired dude-bro played by none other than Wyatt Russell, son of Kurt Russell. Crazy! The guy looks like his dad, and is actually really funny in this in his scenes with Tatum. We need a father/son action-adventure movie asap. John Carpenter, if you're reading this: make this happen.

Now, what I will say is that all of the meta-jokes and self awareness about the pratfalls of sequels only go so far. Because the fact is, jokes aside, a lot of the movie is in fact basically repeating the plot of the original. Yes, it's covered up by the fact that it's joked about and referenced in the movie's script. But even so, the movie does at times have a been-there, done-that feel. Hill and Tatum, as goofy cops Schmidt and Jenko, are sent undercover to pose as college students and bust a deadly designer-drug ring. Once again, the two have to re-acclimate to a life they're many years removed from, and find their way with their new peer groups. In the first movie, the twist was that Hill became a cool-kid, while Tatum was more of an outcast. Here, Tatum's Jenko joins the football team and joins a frat, while Hill's Schmidt feels he's losing his friend to new teammates and frat-brothers (don't feel too bad for Hill though - he inexplicably shacks up with Amber Stevens, whom he meets at a comically-pretentious poetry slam). But yes, many of the jokes wear a bit thin, and sometimes the movie does seem to forego the more clever and witty humor for cheaper stuff. Meaning, as much as the movie tries to poke fun at the dude-bro jock culture embodied by Jenko and Wyatt Russell's character, it also tends to embrace it and aim some of its jokes squarely at that demo. It makes fun of those sorts of low-hanging fruit jokes, but it also doesn't always shy away from them.

One thing with Lord and Miller though - even with comedy, they are never just point-and-shoot directors. In similar fashion to this summer's Neighbors, they make their comedy very cinematic. And they do big action very well - providing the film with some legitimately pretty-awesome chase scenes and shoot-outs.

So what it all boils down to is that 22 JUMP STREET is a very funny movie, but it's almost like all the crazy jokes, big action scenes, and meta-references are there to not-so-subtly distract you from the fact that, at the end of the day, the movie *is* sort of pointless. I guess one way to look at it is that if they are going to make 22 JUMP STREET, they might as well do it in this anything-goes, "we're in on the joke" sort of manner. And you might as well get inventive, creative, outside-the-box guys like Lord and Miller to put what could have been a painful exercise in pointless sequel-making through their funhouse filter of crazy. And yet, how good can a movie really be if it feels like no one *really* wanted to make it, and is just doing everything in their power to then rag on the concept in a self-deprecating, funny way? It's funny - the best and most clever scenes of the whole film may be the post-credit "what-if?" teasers for future sequels, in which every extreme iteration of the franchise is played out - from vet school to rabbinical school. It's hilarious because it's Lord and Miller just dumping all over the whole concept of the never-ending, stretched-past-its-prime franchise. And yet, it's also a reminder that, as funny as these guys can make 22 Jump Street, it's probably also high time that they made the movie they want to make, that they are passionate about, that can be its own thing and not *need* to rag on itself in order to work. In the meantime though, there are far worse - and few funnier - ways to spend a summer night at the movies.

My Grade: B+

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