Saturday, June 14, 2014

Do It All Again: 22 JUMP STREET

Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s 21 Jump Street reboot knew you’d be skeptical. The 2012 comedy based on the late-80’s TV series has an early scene in which the police captain (Nick Offerman) tells his new undercover cops (Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum) that the department is out of ideas and is recycling old ones in the hope no one really cares. Once again, two young cops will go undercover in a high school. From there, Lord and Miller surprised with a movie that’s funnier and smarter than you’d expect. It didn’t care too much for its detective plot, which is transparently simple and resolved too bloodily for laughs. But it was a fun movie with some funny lines, a perfect pair of cameos, smart observation about how quickly high school changes as you leave it behind, and a charming buddy-cop pairing in Hill and Tatum. That’s the kind of short/tall, chubby/fit, motormouth/lunkhead pairing that sounds like it might work on paper, and then wildly exceeds expectations on screen. Together they were better than either would’ve been alone. It was a pleasant surprise.

And now here’s 22 Jump Street, a sequel fully aware that sequels are usually inevitably worse than the first, especially when it comes to comedies. It has Offerman state the problem right off the bat. He wants his undercover cops to team up and infiltrate a new school, a college this time, and root out the source of a deadly new designer drug. He wants them to just do what they did last time. And so the movie sets out to skewer blockbuster sequels’ competing tendencies to A.) go bigger, louder, longer, and more spectacular, and B.) repeat everything that worked the first time around. The plot literalizes this dilemma by having Hill and Tatum’s direct superior (Ice Cube) show off their flashier, more expensive – “for no reason” – resources while telling them to do what they did before. Like Gremlins 2 and Ocean's Twelve, this is a movie that makes its sequel struggle part of the narrative in amusing ways.

Nerdy Hill and jock Tatum are again posing as brothers, now pretending to be college freshmen. Hill gets drawn into the art students’ circle while Tatum pledges at a fraternity and wants to join the football team. Though they became best friends and good partners last time, here they’re drawn apart, only to rediscover and reaffirm what a great team they make together. In between are parties, petty jealousies, a drug trip, slapstick, dirty jokes, homosocial bonding, a couple great cameos, and a token amount of police work. The screenplay by Michael Bacall, Oren Uziel, and Rodney Rothman lays out the pitfalls of sequels repeating the same character beats and riffing on similar scenarios right up front and then does them anyway, winking at its self-referential tendencies. Do it just like last time, our heroes are told. That’s what keeps people happy.

Hill and Tatum’s performances are sharp and consistently on-point. You have to be smart to play dumb so well and without losing audience sympathy. Improbably, in a film so silly and frivolous, I cared about their friendship and wanted them to catch the bad guys. They have great underdog chemistry, approaching the material from opposite directions and meeting expertly in the middle. They really do love each other and cherish their time together, holding back tears whenever they hash out the state of their friendship. It’s sweet. Hill and Tatum’s relationship feels more intense and charming even as the movie gets looser, goofier, and stranger as it steers into the skid, getting around sequel traps by playing them up. They’re terrific anchors for the silliness in which they find themselves. Because the central duo has such considerable charm, Lord and Miller are free to experiment around them.

The directors have clear movie love, an inside-out understanding of how blockbusters work and what makes their tropes so ridiculous(ly charming). Their hugely enjoyable, hard-working films - the Jump Streets, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, The Lego Movie - are so packed with imaginative jokes and concepts that you can almost hear them snickering behind the camera, “Can you believe we get to make a movie!?” What makes 22 Jump Street so funny is the filmmaking breaking the fourth wall without quite letting its characters get through. The movie starts with a rapid-fire “Previously On” montage that somehow manages to reference Annie Hall, then hurtles through its self-aware sequel plotting, ending up in end credits that imagine the franchise’s future in a series of jokes so fast and dense I need to see the movie again just to catch them all.

Lord and Miller, with a more accomplished visual style that gets close to the visual density of their superior animated efforts, shoot the action in a Hot Fuzz-style parody of the Michael Bay style (minus most of his uglier tendencies). With explicit nods to Bad Boys specifically, this movie has low-angle hero shots, emphatic circling cameras, and saturated magic-hour lighting. Then they throw in a dash of split-screen foolishness, like Looney Tunes directed by DePalma, that doubles down on the doubling effect of sequels, a motif carried through by two sets of twins in the supporting cast. (“Twins again?” Tatum groans late in the picture.)

Meanwhile, the college plots are shot and played as typical collegiate comedy, with everything from soft-focus campus romance and vulgar hazing. There are funny scenes with an earnest art major (Amber Stevens), her sarcastic insult-comic of a roommate (scene-stealer Jillian Bell), and a doofy frat boy football player (Wyatt Russell). The movie is constantly drawing attention to its own implausibilities, but the various genre elements in the plot are played somewhat straight, allowing plenty of room for the inherent humor of a goofy pair of undercover cops trying desperately to blend in and solve a crime while working through their own problems.

All of that is complicated and made funnier by the mystery plot always lingering in the back of our leads’ minds. It’s more smoothly threaded through the comedy than last time. There’s a literal red herring symbol. A car chase is sped up as the vehicles zip around the “Benjamin Hill Department of Film Studies.”  It’s somehow thrilling and silly, thrillingly silly. Everything is both serious and a joke. It’s a messy mockery of the same formulaic arcs just barely holding it all together, like a Marx Brothers movie where the very structure of the plot itself is the chaos accelerant.

The film manages to be wild, raucous, self-critical, and often very funny. It has a handful of scenes that had me laughing the hard, short-of-breath, aching-sides laughter that can’t be denied. 22 can’t have the surprise of its first outing, but the filmmakers more than make up for it by energetically and excitingly goofing around the very struggle of doing a sequel. It’s bigger, louder, longer, with meta tricks that start clever, get too clever, and then circle back around again. In the process, the filmmakers made a sequel that captures a different sense of surprise. It’s sloppily satisfying.

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