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Movie Curiosities: 22 Jump Street

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Phil Lord and Christopher Miller are on top of the film industry right now, and it's for a very simple reason: They have the unique ability to turn shit into gold. And I don't just mean that they can take horrible concepts and spin them into profitable mediocrities (see: Michael Bay, Jerry Bruckheimer, etc.). No, Lord and Miller consistently take the shittiest ideas that could possibly be thrown against a wall and turn them into genuinely entertaining pictures. I'm not even talking about bad ideas like Battleship, Jem and the Holograms, or Ghostbusters 3 (which, no joke, they actually did turn down). Even those ill-concieved projects seem infinitely more workable than Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, 21 Jump Street, or a movie about Legos. Yet all three of those movies made millions of filmgoers happy and came away with a ton of bank.

So here's 22 Jump Street, a film that would have been inconceivable only three years ago. For God's sake, whoever would have thought that a Jonah Hill/Channing Tatum update of a forgotten '80s TV show would make any kind of money, much less enough to earn a sequel? How could such a film possibly be one of the funniest pictures released that year?

And even if all of that improbably comes to pass, what are the chances of that lightning striking twice? Well, it seems the filmmakers were asking that exact same question while producing the sequel.

Remember that one time in the last film when Deputy Chief Hardy (Nick Offerman, who reprises his role) got a scene-stealing monologue comparing Jump Street's revival to the film reboot in particular and the state of blockbuster cinema in general? In that movie, it was a fantastic bit of meta humor that came completely out of nowhere. But it was just that: a bit. Compare that to the sequel, in which Jenko and Schmidt (Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill once again) are explicitly sent back to Jump Street with the hope that they can get back to closing cases by doing the exact same thing they did before. And the characters say as much ad nauseam.

The previous movie poked fun at its main characters, explicitly showing that Jenko and Schmidt aren't nearly as badass as they think. This led to some great action movie parody, and some very funny jabs at high school films as well. In the sequel, however, the characters mostly comment on their own film, joking implicitly and explicitly about the inevitable failure of sequels that try to recapture the success of the original. Thus we have a self-fulfilling prophecy and a self-defeating film.

It's made into a huge freaking deal that Jump Street (the film and the operation) has a much bigger budget than before because the last attempt inexplicably went so well. Yet all that money apparently didn't go into the script. It felt like half the dialogue was improvised, resulting in awkward scenes that ramble on and on way past the point of being funny. Of course, 21 Jump Street had a few aimless scenes like these, but the humor in that film was generally much more tightly scripted and better-timed for it.

For the record, I'm not generally a fan of this rambling, improvisational style. I generally like my humor to be like a heat-seeking missile. I love jokes that go straight to the target and blast it to pieces with one perfectly-timed, devastating strike. But this film's humor is more like a submachine gun, spraying thousands of jokes all over the place in the hope that one or two will hit their mark. That isn't my thing, but if it's yours, I won't complain. Additinally, I confess that I once made an exception for This is The End, since that film had so many belabored scenes that got more and more outrageously crass until I didn't really have a choice but to laugh (kind of like tickle torture). Obviously, that's not the route Lord and Miller went with here.

With all of that said, there are some scripted moments (particularly during the action scenes) that got me to laugh, and some actors are especially gifted at riffing. Jillian Bell (a former SNL writer) was given dialogue almost entirely comprised of age jokes, commenting on how Jonah Hill is far too old to be a college freshman, and she somehow makes every joke seem fresh. She's easily the funniest part of this film, and I dearly hope to see more of Bell in the future. Another big surprise is Ice Cube, of all people, who turns in some fantastic improv jokes. Patton Oswalt also turns up to steal the show, though it's a damn shame that he only got one scene. That's a terrible waste of comic genius right there.

But let's get back to the "doing the same thing" angle. Though it is a crux of the humor, setting the picture in college actually changes a few things. For instance, neither of the main characters have ever been to college, so they don't go in with any preconceived notions like they did in the last picture.

Also, Jenko and Schmidt accidentally swapped cliques in the previous film, which provided much of the prequel's "high school parody" humor. This time, the two end up exactly where they were meant to. Jenko lands in the football team, finding a kindred spirit in Zook (Wyatt Russell, son of Kurt), and getting close to the buyers of this film's target narcotic (dubbed "WHYPHY," pronounced "Wi-fi"). Meanwhile, Schmidt finds a love interest (Maya, played by Amber Stevens) in the art crowd and befriends many former friends of a dead student connected with WHYPHY. In theory, this would allow our two protagonists to investigate the drug ring from two separate angles and make faster progress as a team. But that would mean advancing the plot, which is so thin that this picture would be over in half an hour if the film didn't stall so much.

No, Jenko and Schmidt are still so comically inept that they would rather focus on their own problems and in-fighting. The movie tries to justify this, saying that the two are finding their own way -- as college students do -- instead of adhering to someone else's plans for success. And the movie expresses this concept by interminable scenes of stupid arguments between the two characters.

There's really not much else to talk about, except the end credits sequence. The film treats us to a hilarious series of short trailers and posters for a shit-ton of Jump Street sequels, up to and including a space academy film called 2121 Jump Street. I'm of two minds about this. I'm not sure if the filmmakers were doing this to prove how far they could potentially take the series, or trying to show how stupid it would be to make any more sequels beyond this point. Either the filmmakers were begging for the chance to actually make these films, or they made these teasers up front so they wouldn't have to bother with the actual films later on. I have no idea what the message was here.

I have a hard time recommending 22 Jump Street, but that's entirely because its sense of humor simply wasn't for me. If you get a laugh out of seeing characters talk themselves into circles like total asses as they make a situation more painfully awkward than it already was, this is your film. But personally, I don't think that awkward situations are funny, they're just awkward. Furthermore, when a film is meta to this outlandish degree, it almost feels like it's insulting the audience, questioning why we bought tickets to such a ridiculous concept and then clamored for the chance to do it again. Hell, given the loose nature of the script and direction, I'm not sure that anyone behind the camera even wanted to make this picture.

I'll gladly admit that the movie got a few laughs out of me, but that doesn't make up for the few hundred jokes that were painful to sit through. All things considered, I'd recommend a rental just to see if it's your thing. Even if you enjoy the film, there's nothing here that wouldn't look just as good on a TV screen.

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