Review: “22 Jump Street”

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I usually try not to let my expectations get too high for movies, but it was impossible not to in the case of 22 Jump Street. Phil Lord and Chris Miller are now my favorite comedy directors working today, making films which bridge the gap between the mainstream and snobbish film elitists. I was utterly ready to believe their first sequel would be The Godfather II of comedies. It doesn’t help that the movie had even more hype on top of it thanks to the directors’ previous 2014 hit The Lego Movie raising the bar for both animated movies and license-based movies.

The question was, how exactly would Phil Lord and Chris Miller handle a sequel? They have proven three times before that their greatest strength is to take something that sounds like a bad idea and then subvert and morph it into something hilariously ambitious and utterly unexpected. In all three cases they excelled at delivering humor that was mercilessly self-aware, letting audiences in on the jokes in a way that respects their intelligence while simultaneously frequently staying one step ahead.

But sequels, comedy sequels especially, are tricky. Whereas Lord and Miller try to be defiantly original, comedy sequels always beg for, and many times necessitate, the recycling of jokes and plot points from their predecessor. Lord and Miller clearly know this and run with it, making that part of the joke and exploring what it means to be a sequel within the plot itself. The movie very quickly and very unsubtly lets you know this. It’s not trying to be smarter than you, it’s not trying to trick you. It just wants to make you laugh.

Jenko (TATUM) and Zook (WYATT RUSSELL) out on the field

Hill and Tatum’s bumbling characters are given the same job and are stuck in the same relationship loop as the first movie, and must learn how much to diverge from who they were and what they did in 21 Jump Street. This self-aware perspective on what otherwise seems like a cynical cash grab (much like The Lego Movie felt before people saw how good it was) is par for the course for Lord & Miller, exactly the reason they’re such a breath of fresh air in a genre filled with admittedly funny comedies that ultimately suffer from the same worn-out, Apatow-drenched man-child shtick.

The film is at its best when it’s poking fun at itself, but when it comes time to stop being meta and actually move the plot forward, the movie feels like a bigger-budget deja vu. It’s been said before by many smarter critics than myself, but I’ll say it again because it’s absolutely true: just because the movie makes fun of its repetitive elements does not stop them from being repetitive.

We already saw Hill and Tatum share witty banter, and we already saw them take drugs, and we already saw them drift away from each other only to reunite to save the day. We cared about it then. We still care now, mostly because those characters are so likable and work so well together, but the law of diminishing returns assures we care just a smidge less.

ImageOn top of this, even some of the repeated ideas aren’t done as well as they were before. Whereas the first film offered a perfectly-executed satire of high school (and how it has changed over time), this film tries but does not take advantage of the college setting with nearly as much success. The stuff involving frat life feels especially hollow in Neighbors’ shadow.  The relationship between Hill and Maya (played by the talented and beautiful Amber Stevens) also feels stale when put next to the previous film’s similar thread with Brie Larson.

There’s also a point at which, in trying to make the film’s plot feel bigger in scale, it actually makes everything feel more convoluted. The simple “infiltrate the dealer, find the supplier” mission is suddenly filled with too many one-note characters and too many MacGuffins that I ultimately learned to stop following what they’re doing and focusing on the dialogue, which is still some of the funniest in any recent movie. Many of the movie’s one-liners and exchanges feel fresh and improvised in a way that not even hits like Neighbors or This is the End could achieve.

Even if the movie feels consistently redundant, there is still room for surprises — Not Lego Movie caliber surprises, but surprises nonetheless. For example, Ice Cube steals the show in an expanded role. He clearly loves the role he’s playing, and man is he at the top of his game. And I thought Are We There Yet would be his legacy.

ImageThen there’s the end credits sequence — by far the funniest end credits sequence I’ve ever seen, and I kind of wish the movie was filled with more moments that completely decimate the fourth wall like that. It’s a genius, genius way to end the movie that goes a long way to making up for the movie’s considerable flaws.

Lord & Miller clearly knew they would have to be repetitive, but at least they try their hardest to make the best out of what they have to work with, as they always do. While 22 is still utterly hilarious and more thoughtful than the vast majority of R-rated, broad-humor comedies, the material isn’t even close to the staggeringly funny 21 Jump Street.

So instead of being The Empire Strikes Back of comedies, 22 Jump Street is more like the Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom of comedies. In other words, it’s a well crafted piece of work, but it can’t help but feel slightly disappointing in the wake of its predecessor. Still, it’s on par with Neighbors as being the funniest comedy of the year, and it will likely end up being one of the more unique comedy sequels we’ll get for a while.

ImageSomewhere, Seth MacFarlane just realized how old and antiquated his comedy has become in comparison and is wiping away a single tear with a big crumpled-up ball of hundred-dollar bills while typing the words “Ted 3″ and smiling menacingly.  

Score: 3.5 out of 5

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