17 June 2014

First Impressions: 22 Jump Street

Welcome to the film least likely to be considered a success if you pitched it to me three years ago - 22 Jump Street (2014), the sequel to the 80s Television Revival Remake Movie of two years ago. This movie has no business being funny, relevant, or successful. But dammit...it's incredible. Well, it is incredibly funny for sure, but I'm actually hesitant to call it a good movie. It gets a few points for being the most meta movie ever, absolutely, and it does have its fair share of canny observations about College life (but not nearly as much as its predecessor had on High School life). My only real problem is, that while it thoroughly acknowledges its repetitive elements, it still revels in these elements rather than surpassing them. It never quite breaks free of what it is making fun of, which is difficult.

It's fitting that this is another Phil Lord / Chris Miller joint, who also blessed us with The LEGO Movie (2014), which also had cock-eyed expectations and was yes, the most meta movie ever up until 22 Jump. The directing pair seem to have a knack for taking these really hackneyed, insipid ideas and load them with subversive and meta elements until they reflect so hard upon themselves that it's tough to judge them as a piece of original text at all. Instead it becomes some sort of otherworldy commentary on the state of the modern blockbuster, while being a tremendous poster child for that blockbuster itself. These Clone High guys are nuts. There will be a nice load of SPOILERS from here on out, so if you're looking for a nice thorough discussion of the film's merits, keep reading, if not, go see this thing and come back.

The meta is the most obvious element here. From Ron Swanson Nick Offerman's first observations that they're moving across the street to 22 Jump Street to both his and Ice Cube's continued insistence to do the same thing again that made them successful the first time to offbeat references to NWA and White House Down (2013), the movie is always playing with itself, its own expectations, and the notion of repetitive sequels seeking nostalgia. See? I could have written this movie.

The major issue structurally, then, is as I said earlier; the film feels such a tremendous need to constantly point out these foibles, and even when the major characters, Schmidt (Jonah) and Jenko (Channing) point out this nonsense, the film is still resistant to changing any of the major beats, even after it rejects the first film's specific plot (which yes, it was desperately trying to emulate). The end result is a bit more hollow than I'm sure the film's creators intended. It's not really enough just pointing out by saying constantly, "Oh yeah we're totally part of a crass, money-grabbing studio system," without taking any actual critical action to correct that assumption, and instead unashamedly relishing in that system.

Now, the film does play with the plot from 21 Jump Street (2012) a little bit, but it's always self-aware. This time, Jenko is the one who is able to get in with the cool kids, even though Schmidt had the more positive previous college experience. There are also big mirrored moments that are played for jokes, like Schmidt attempting and failing to take a bullet for Jenko after the reverse happened the first time around. The final revelation of where the drugs originated is also lampshaded well, although the final result really isn't very different from a narrative stance.

There is still student bonding with cool kids who are dealer suspects and Jenko misses the big game like Schmidt missed Peter Pan in 21 Jump Street. And then, just like last time, they split up and then gear up with some immortal event emblematic to the normative experience of their "peers" that they've missed out on (prom and Spring Break, respectively). Then comes a finale that depends on upending expectations (arguably moreso, even though Mercedes' involvement was a little predictable) and Schmidt sucking it up to get past previous physical failures to save the day. All this happens repetitively, and yes the film is very self-aware of this nature, but that doesn't really make it better writing than say, The Hangover: Part II (2011).

Okay, now that I've shit all over the major structure and meta-themes of this movie, I am actually going to remain standing and tell you that this was a really fun time at the movies. See, that's the tough part about 22 Jump Street - it's really, REALLY damn funny. There are so many incredible moments here, and the jokes land very well consistently and intelligently. The comedic chemistry between Jonah and Channing was a shock the first time around, but here it's fully developed, satisfying, and executed with perfect timing.

Tatum himself has transformed into an incredible comedic talent. He's so game to spoof his image constantly, from botching "cool" action lines, to skewering his muscle-bound persona. I'm curious about this film's varying levels of homosexual tension, to the arguably homophobic counseling session Jenko and Schmidt participate in as a fake couple, to the pitch-perfect homoeroticism between Channing and Zook (Wyatt "Son of Kurt and Goldie" Russell) while working out. There's also an interesting bit where Jenko blows his cover to defend against the use of the word "fag," which is a transformative moment from bro culture to a tolerant culture that works pretty well. I'm not sure all of this is totally gay friendly, but safe comedies aren't really fun anyway, and it never takes itself seriously enough to be mean.

Channing does so much more for this movie. His Spider-Man impression, which I had to post at left, was incredible, as is his heavy use of parkour and other moves that make Jonah look even more pathetic. And that hallucination scene possibly surpasses 21 Jump Street. I could watch them shuffle for hours.

The rest of the cast is absolutely game, which is great. Amber Stevens as Ice Cube's daughter is inspired and a tremendous foil for the overly sensitive Schmidt (whose multiple walks of shame, by the way, are legendary). Jillian "Workaholics" Bell is also tremendous in a role that required her to be both a bit of a priss and then a huge badass. And that Kiss / Fight tension was incredible. H. Jon Benjamin sadly comes and goes without a single Archer reference (seriously, how hard would it be to work in a "phrasing?" into that screenplay), but anyone notice he looked a lot like the trainer he played in Not Another Teen Movie (2001)? Just me? Okay.

This is also one of the richer films in terms of subtle background jokes - from Nick Offerman's picture of himself at his desk behind his desk to weird, blatant bits like the Benjamin Hill Center for Film Studies, the University of College Generals, and my favorite font joke I've seen in a while, the Zapf P. Helvetica Student Hall. There's also the very high amount of red herrings in this film that eventually culminates with football player Rooster's tattoo of his high school mascot, the Red Herrings. It's incredible and worth a few multiple viewings to catch them all. And then there's those lobster scenes, that would appear so random if you haven't seen Annie Hall (1977), which in itself referencing one of the greatest romantic comedies of all time with two bros is really more indicative of the year 2014 than anything else in this film.

Now, I haven't even approached most of the merits of this film. The end credits are entertaining and have certainly gained some fame, but I didn't find them all that appealing coming from a film that never broke away from its own joke. The cameos were appreciated, though, especially when you have some knowledge of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs (2009). In essence, the credits show multiple possible sequels (22 in all), which would be funnier if there will truly be no 23 Jump Street. I don't know, maybe there just isn't enough distance when this film is making fun of the serialization and franchization of big movies like this when by its nature there is no real difference. Sure, there aren't board games or anything, but it's still a studio system movie that has earned its studio a ridiculous amount of money. I'm just not totally on board with the slight hypocrisy at work there.

This film also has less to say about College Life than 21 Jump Street did about High School Life. There is less of that typification of experiences, although there is something to be said about how these two different worlds between the art kids and the jocks emerged, which is probably more reductive than the eco-friendly cool kids vs. the science dweebs of the first film. But we should discuss Spring Break.

I really dig how Spring Break is taking on this life of its own, even if MTV really tried to do that with all this crazy Spring Break programming like ten years ago. Now, this has mostly been either Harmony Korine or a perfect parody of heteronormative macho party standards. 22 Jump Street wisely uses of the all the weapons of spring break during an expertly choreographed fight: a blow up doll, a beer bong, a drunk girl, and finally, some vomit.

So, what's the final impression on 22 Jump? There are some problems with its self-aware and meta-obsessed core conceit that it's a really shallow sequel which it never really breaks the mold of structurally or narratively. But it's funny as hell, the cast chemistry is spectacular, there are more incredible moments to count, and the jokes land every time with many lurking in the background that make repeat viewings a treat. I just wish we could be seeing it for the first time instead of a retread of that incredible film we got two years ago. What can I say? Nostalgia sucks and I was right.

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