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22 Jump Street

June 13, 2014
22 Jump Street

Back when I reviewed 21 Jump Street I said it was stupid, but it was smart enough to know how stupid it was, and that made the difference between terrible and terribly fun. So, of course the studio ordered a sequel. Back when Anchorman 2 came out last December, Film Crit Hulk wrote an analysis of “the inherent problem with comedy sequels”, identifying many of the same problems that I had, but of course calling them out much more precisely and putting them into a wider context.

The gist of it — though you really should go read the whole Hulk-sized article, followed by everything else he’s written — is that comedy relies on surprise, but a sequel exists because people want more of the same. As the premise continues, it must end up retreading a lot of the exact same ground as the last installment, and it feels stale the second time around. 22 Jump Street is no exception to this trend, but it reads like a direct response to Hulk’s analysis as well: this sequel, like all comedy sequels, is composed in large part of warmed-over versions of the best parts from 21 Jump Street, but the key is that it is at all times aware of this fact. Rather than avoiding it, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller — and the script by returning screenwriter Michael Bacall — foreground that fact and build the entire premise around it. And that makes all the difference in the world.

So, in the world of Metro City, the antics of Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) made the Jump Street program such a success that they’ve been sent back, but the Korean congregation has moved back into their building, sending the headquarters across the street to an abandoned Vietnamese church at number 22. Just like last time, there’s a new synthetic drug going around a school. Captain Dickson (Ice Cube) briefs them on the rise of “WHYPHY” at MC State College and the death of an unfortunate before ordering them to “infiltrate the dealers; find the supply”, just like last time. They’re even using the same cover identities.

But Schmidt and Jenko are also feeling stuck in a rut. Like any couple, they feel their long relationship growing stale and repetitive. They were close in high school, but college opens up a wider world of opportunities. Jenko quickly falls in with a bunch of football-playing fratboys who might have a connection to the drug scene, making an instant connection with the quarterback, Zook (Wyatt Russell). Schmidt doesn’t remotely fit in with them; he hits it off with the dead student’s arty friends, including Maya (Amber Stevens), whose new roommate (Jillian Bell) used to live with the dead girl. After some friction, Schmidt and Jenko reluctantly suggest that maybe it’s time they investigate different people.

Composing an entire movie out of meta-humor would be all but impossible, so it’s a stroke of genius to echo the idea of a stale comedic premise in the idea of a stale relationship, which is itself a rather timeworn cliché. Tatum and Hill do an excellent job of playing a bickering couple in perfect deadpan, never winking to acknowledge the obvious homosexual overtones even when they end up in couples therapy. And Tatum repeats the performance with Russell, who feels like the second coming of Owen Wilson.

But 22 Jump Street is not just a self-aware echo of 21 Jump Street. There’s a lot of overlap of course — similar situations done bigger the second time around — but the shift from odd couple to old couple opens up plenty of new ground as well. There’s a real balance between fresh material, old favorites, and the self-commentary that ties it all together. Yet again, Miller and Lord take what looks like a terrible idea on the page and somehow spin it into comedy gold.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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