Warning: Spoilers teased
In going to see 22 Jump Street, audiences will be lucky/unlucky enough to see the trailer for Dumb and Dumber To first. Despite how the original Dumb and Dumber is 20 years old and how few were really asking for a sequel, Hollywood is going through with it no matter how ill-advised and destined for a letdown it might be.
In fact, the funniest thing about the Dumb and Dumber sequel will likely be how the trailer plays in front of another comedy sequel — one that openly scorns the idea of comedy sequels to begin with. Although writer/directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller didn’t create that bit of meta commentary themselves, it’s practically the only kind of meta-joke they didn’t pour into 22 Jump Street, no matter if it works or not.
Socially awkward Schmidt and mentally dim Jenko defied expectations by going undercover in high school for the 21 Jump Street reboot. When their regular undercover missions hit a snag, the duo are moved down to 22 Jump Street, to redo the same formulaic case that worked for them before – this time in college. But while trying to find the source of the hot new drug Whyphy, Jenko finds a kindred spirit on the football team – one much more ideal for him than Schmidt on paper – as Schmidt’s inadequacies and clinginess help threaten to tear their case and partnership apart.
The very first second of 22 Jump Street sets the tone by teasing “Previously on 21 Jump Street” with the self-mockery only building from there. As Lord and Miller proved in 21 Jump Street and The Lego Movie, they will take any idea that sounds completely idiotic on the surface, admit how idiotic it is at every opportunity, and then somehow make it look good. In this case, their target is unnecessary, repetitive sequels to surprise hit movies that should have been left alone.
Like before, Jenko and Schmidt bungle a mission before Nick Offerman’s Deputy Chief Hardy sends them to Jump Street with an ultra-meta speech – only with even more commentary about bigger budgets, diminishing returns for sequels and White House Down, of all things. Like before, Ice Cube’s captain sends Jenko and Schmidt to infiltrate dealers and find their suppliers. Like before, one of the partners gets in way too deep and gets attached to a new friend – in this case, Jenko with fellow lunkhead Zook — leading to the other lashing out and questioning their friendship. And like before, there’s a big end of second act breakup, before the case and the partnership are repaired in a big final battle at a student institution – in this case spring break instead of prom. The only difference is that everything is done bigger, if not better or more originally.
There’s virtually no one in the business who can get away with this, at least this much, other than Lord and Miller at this point. 22 Jump Street is virtually critic proof, since the movie is its own worst critic and the bar is set so low by past comedy sequels that are far lazier. In truth, 22 Jump Street is really a more self-aware version of The Hangover Part II, which repeated the formula for its original surprise smash to the letter — and was deservingly trashed for it. On some level, Lord and Miller may deserve a bit of trashing as well.
On other levels, 22 Jump Street still carries over the tongue in cheek genius of the original, in ways that so many comedy sequels were unable to maintain. The only problem is that the genius bits of inspiration and satire have a bit more dead weight around them this time. When the jokes and commentary work, like in the whole first act, 22 Jump Street can walk the fine line between being funny and not becoming the very thing it is mocking. When bits don’t work, like in various stretches in the second act, Lord and Miller threaten to fall off their time honored tight rope.
Sequels generally repeat what works in the original over and over again, to the point where it stops working at all. To that end, perhaps it is another bit of satire from Lord and Miller that they lean on meta-commentary more than ever before in this sequel. They used it just right in 21 Jump Street and The Lego Movie without making it into a crutch, but there are times in the worst parts of 22 Jump Street where they are a bit too dependent on it – which hopefully isn’t the start of a pattern from them.
Perhaps a task like this really is a no-win scenario, since nothing can equal the freshness and surprise of an original hit in any genre. A prime example is the big chase scene to end the second act, which was among the most inspired bits of satire in 21 Jump Street when nothing would explode on cue. In 22 Jump Street, being careful not to go over budgets is the big satirical punchline, which makes for wonderfully inspired gags and parodies – albeit ones just a hair shy of the genius in the original. That is basically a perfect description of 22 Jump Street in a nutshell.
Yet when Lord and Miller get stuck in routines that don’t work, they always come up with something clever or side-splitting just when they seem out of ideas. They may overdo a running gag or two, like with Jenko and Schmidt basically acting like a feuding romantic couple instead of a “bromatic” one, but even that has clever silver linings – at least more than other movies that put a more oblivious homophobic vibe on bits like that. Jenko even gets a few bits where he objects to the word “fag” after taking just one human sexuality course, so Lord and Miller are ahead of everyone else’s criticism yet again.
22 Jump Street is sometimes more of a movie of moments than a complete whole, unlike the original. But enduring the stretches and jokes that don’t land are still well worth it for the stretches and satire that do, proving that Lord and Miller are becoming masters at it. Any lingering doubts about that are shattered in the uproarious end credits, which are the definitive middle finger to Hollywood and its lust for stretching out franchises. Lord and Miller may be enabling that in a way – which will be clearer if buzz about a 23 Jump Street picks up in the next year – but at the moment, they are among the best enablers moviegoers have.
Lord and Miller are only one of the main duos in the Jump Street saga, with Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum still forging the other half. But in another welcome piece of history repeating itself, Tatum proves even more adept and inspired at numbskull comedy than the more veteran Hill, although it shouldn’t be as much of a surprise this time.
However, both Tatum and Hill are repeating themselves in other ways, as Hill again uses Jump Street for a comedic triumph, months after getting Oscar nominated for semi-serious comic relief alongside a mega star – in this case, The Wolf of Wall Street and Leonardo DiCaprio instead of Moneyball and Brad Pitt. As for Tatum, he is starting 2014 just like 2012, with a personal comedic landmark in Jump Street before making what looks like a more dramatic leap forward in his next film – which was Magic Mike in 2012 and stands to be Foxcatcher [ironically helmed by Hill’s Moneyball director, Bennett Miller] in 2014.
Ice Cube is the third mainstay of the franchise, as he proves with an expanded role and more hilarious reactions to his subordinates’ idiocy – among other things. But beyond Hill, Tatum and Cube, 21 Jump Street actually had a larger supporting cast with the likes of Offerman, Dave Franco, Brie Larson, Rob Riggle, Chris Parnell, Ellie Kemper and the original TV show stars. There are fewer notable people in the stars’ way this time, although there is a scene-stealing Jillian Bell as a creepy college roommate, brief returns from Riggle and Franco and all too brief sights of Patton Oswalt and H. Jon Benjamin on campus.
In taking aim at the sequel genre, Lord and Miller tear it to pieces in the best ways, while being unable to avoid a few side effects in the process. After The Lego Movie, 22 Jump Street seems more like a tiny step down for them, after they just proved they could use meta-commentary and parody for deeper reasons than mere self-mockery. But whenever directors have a big hit, branch out in their next project and then go make a sequel anyway, it usually feels a bit beneath them by then – so even that has the ring of a Hollywood takedown from these directors.
Given Lord and Miller’s penchant for taking bad ideas seemingly on a dare, just to prove they can work while tearing them apart themselves, 23 Jump Street may be inevitable after all. But before future installments sour the unlikely success of the early ones, in Chief Hardy’s self-fulfilling prophecy, there’s still a lot of unlikely success to savor in 22 Jump Street before the bottom drops. At the very least, it will be hard not to leave the theater laughing.