Sunday, June 15, 2014

22 Jump Street (***)

Directed by Phil Lord & Christopher Miller


Comedies like 22 Jump Street are always one step ahead of you. It's seemingly perfect contrast of absurdity and subversive realism makes it impossible to make judgments - you can't nitpick because it's already nitpicked itself. 2012's 21 Jump Street was very sneakily the funniest comedy of that year, and this year's sequel comes prepared for all concerns one may have about fading mojo. The filmmaking team of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller already directed one megahit from earlier this year, The Lego Movie, and they seem primed to become the kings of broad Hollywood comedy. Their success is simple and earned. Comedy films changed after Judd Apatow made The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Suddenly, they were allowed to be raunchy and heartfelt, improvised and tight. Of all of Apatow's official and unofficial descendants, Lord and Miller are the only ones who seem to have succeeded both comedically and commercially. And while Apatow seems to have a perpetual obsession with obtaining some form of victorian vindication for his art, Lord and Miller's primary focus seems set on laughs. And 22 Jump Street certainly has plenty of those.

The film has a whole lot of fun with the very concept of being a sequel, it's intertextuality being one of its main sources of charm. After the success of their 21 Jump Street mission, officers Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) are tasked by Deputy Chief Hardy (Nick Offerman, in his usual perfect deadpan) to repeat the same mission over again. They're sent to visit Captain Dickson (Ice Cube) at his new undercover office, right across the street from the old one: 22 Jump Street. Instead of pretending to run a Korean Christian church, Dickson is now pretending to run a Vietnamese one. Dickson explains succinctly: they will be doing the same mission over again, only this time they'll be going to college. There's a new drug sweeping the nearby campus of MU (don't ask) called WHYPHY and has been attached to the death of at least one student. Dickson wants Schmidt and Jenko to go undercover as students, snuff out the dealers then the supplier and stop the drug before it spreads across campuses all over the country. They're told repeatedly by both Hardy and Dickson: don't change it up, just do the exact same thing.

Their college experience runs different than their high school one, where Schmidt was the one who caught on socially and Jenko had to lag behind. This time around, Jenko quickly makes friend with MU's quarterback, named Zook (Wyatt Russell) and the two end up making a frightening QB-wide receiver tandem, getting Jenko a permanent placement on the team almost immediately. The new friendship puts Schmidt at odds with Jenko, as Zook plays more toward Jenko's heteronormativity than Schmidt ever could. Schmidt, on the other hand, becomes friendly with a young girl named Maya (Amber Stevens) at a Slam Poetry night for mingling freshmen, in which he performs a slam poem on the spot to uneven results. Maya enjoys Schmidt's odd charm, but their privacy is often interrupted by Maya's interjecting roommate, Mercedes (a hilarious Jillian Bell). As the two of them explore these separate relationships, they do their best to find leads for their case, even as the tensions between them cause their friendship to fray. As events unfold, Schmidt, Jenko and especially the audience learn that things just can't be done exactly the same a second time. Sometimes, the second time can be even better.

The matchup of Hill and Tatum is a brilliant one in retrospect. It was not one that I thought looked particularly great before I saw the first Jump Street movie, but the two of them share an incredible chemistry which is even better this time around. Much like the first film, the surprising dynamic of this comedic duo is Tatum, who manages to nab more laughs than the comedy veteran Hill (though, now that we can call Jonah Hill a two-time Oscar nominee, perhaps he's risen above it?). Hill was always my favorite actor within the Apatow stead. His humor is subtly heartbreaking, a lot of it exuding an insecurity that's pretty universal. But Tatum's dumb jock approach to the role has now been the more consistently entertaining one in these two films. The 34-year-old actor is skyrocketing up the ladder of fame, with a nonstop parade of juicy roles, both big and small, showcasing his uncanny ability to steal all of the eyes on the screen. He has a sense of humor about himself and his image that he's picked at mercilessly within these Jump Street movies and especially in a short cameo in This Is The End. This may end up being his biggest year yet, with Bennett Miller's Foxcatcher coming out in the Fall. He may be able to share the Oscar nominee title with Hill before the year is over. 22 Jump Street also gives more screentime to Ice Cube's Dickson, and the former rapper proves once again that he actually has a brilliant screen presence when given the correct opportunity.

22 Jump Street is Lord and Miller at the peak of their powers. Whether or not they can stretch out beyond comedy has yet to be seen, but I'm not exactly sure that's a venture that I'm interested in them taking. The duo has an eye for what audiences want and then still have the ability to exceed expectations. They've mastered the art of irony and anti-irony, and while this meta-textual version of comedy is something that can come across as elitist, they always pull it off with a humble energy, as if they did it by accident. The Jump Street movies are their only adult film ventures, with The Lego Movie and the Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs films being the other part of their canon (their television work, notwithstanding), and it'd be interesting to see if they could make more R-rated material. There is an innocence to the Jump Street films that make them so endearing, so it makes sense that these filmmakers can also make movies for children. If I have one complaint about 22 Jump Street, I'd have to call out its over-reliance on homoerotic humor - not that it was offensive, just that it was used so often that I became fatigued. Toward the end, the film's laughs grow a bit thinner, but that's before the film's final sequence that is such a brilliant comedic montage that I will not spoil it here. This is easily the best comedy that I've seen all year.

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