I’d have to see it again with a clicker and an abacus to collect the proper data, but if I had to guess, I’d estimate at least half of the jokes in Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s 22 Jump Street are generated by one of three running gags. They are, in descending order of effectiveness: the film’s uproarious awareness of itself as a bigger, louder, more expensive sequel; the fact that, even undercover as college students, protagonists Schmidt and Jenko (and the actors who play them, Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum) are a good decade too old, and look it; and that the professional partnership between Schmidt and Jenko, and the strain their college experience puts on it, is something akin to a gay relationship. The meta-sequel and old-guy stuff is very, very funny. The “ha ha, that’s so gay” business leaves a sour aftertaste — particularly in light of Mr. Hill’s recent PR troubles.
And the real frustration of 22 Jump Street is that when they’re not beating that dead horse, it’s a clever and giddily funny picture. 21 Jump Street was one of the most refreshing surprises of recent mainstream cinema, a crass bit of pre-branded moviemaking — the movie version of a goofy ‘80s cop show — done with a knowing wink. Few scenes in cinema history are as self-aware as Nick Offerman’s expositional offering: “We’re reviving a canceled undercover police program from the ‘80s and revamping it for modern times. You see, the guys in charge of this stuff lack creativity and are completely out of ideas. So all they do now is recycle shit from the past and expect us all not to notice.”
22 Jump Street takes that nugget and runs with it, even bringing back Offerman to explain how they’ve doubled the budget for this new Jump Street, “as if spending twice the money guaranteed twice the profits.” Perusing their new, high-tech facility, Tatum’s Jenko is impressed: “This is awesome! Like, way more expensive for no reason.” Even better, as the film progresses, they get word that their lack of results has caused their budget to get slashed, and the budget woes become dialogue fodder. “I got $800 shoes,” Ice Cube’s Captain Dickson complains, “and you can’t even see the motherfuckers!” Their budget worries even work their way into a car chase, as Schmidt berates Janko for driving them into a robotics lab. “Lot of expensive stuff in there!” Jenko agrees.
And so on. In other words, 22 Jump Street is a sequel about sequels, right up to the deliciously inside-baseball closing credit sequence, which I wouldn’t dream of spoiling. And it also continues the gag, broached in the original film, of sending up the original show’s undercover-cops-in-high-school premise with frequent mentions of the characters’ age; here, most of those lines come from Mercedes, the bitter roommate of Schmidt’s maybe-girlfriend Maya (Amber Stevens); she’s played by Jillian Bell, from Workaholics and Eastbound and Down, and you may as well remember the name, because you’ll come out of the film wanting to know who she is. Bell steals the picture, handily, with her crackerjack comic timing and the best deadpan since Aubrey Plaza.
All that sounds well and good, and certainly enough material to sustain a summer comedy sequel. But there’s all this… other stuff. If the original Jump Street put the odd couple together, the follow-up tests their relationship, as their single investigative lead takes the pair to football try-outs. There, Jenko makes friends with quarterback Zook (Wyatt Russell), who invites him to a frat party; Schmidt, needless to say, fits in with this guy (and his teammate/brothers) neither on the field or off. He gets jealous of Jenko’s new friendship, and it puts a strain on their relationship, which is framed, at every possible opportunity, as similar to that of two gay men.
“Maybe we should investigate different people,” Jenko says, when their situation comes to a head. “Sow our cop oats.” It’s rather an obvious gag, as is their improvised couples therapy session with a school psychologist, who mistakes their status as partners with, y’know, “partners.” Tatum’s Jenko feigns indifference, while Hill overdoes the emotional instability (“He won’t even hold my hand.”) They do, in fact, go their separate ways — to a montage scored by John Waite’s “I Ain’t Missing You” — only to re-team and take down the bad guys during spring break in “Puerto Mexico.” But Jenko wants to make sure the rules are clear: “You know this is just a one-time thing, right?” Schmidt nods, and applies sunscreen to his partner’s neck.
So what, exactly, is the joke here? Once you get past the Three’s Company-level verbal misunderstandings, it seems to be, in a nutshell, that they are “acting gay” (as the meathead audience the humor seems geared towards might put it). And that, sadly, is about it. It’s not that it’s necessarily all that offensive — it’s just stupid, backwards-thinking comedy, as if the mere sight of two men in love with each other is somehow, in and of itself, funny. It’s an odd throwback, almost to the fussy “sissies” of ‘30s and ‘40s movies, whose mere effeminate presence was a punchline.
A few weeks back, for a rundown of sports comedies, I watched Slap Shot for the first time — a funny, energetic picture whose honest-to-God homophobia is so cringe-inducing, it all but wrecks the viewing experience. No self-respecting comedy hoping for mainstream success can get away with that kind of anti-gay “humor” anymore; for that matter, it’s hard to even imagine the gay panic bullshit of 2002’s Boat Trip or 2007’s I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry flying at the multiplex these days. And it’s not that there isn’t humor to be mined from the gay experience, or even, to get more specific, the homoerotic undertones of Greek life. (Neighbors proved that point several weeks ago, and was “family”-friendly to boot.)
But you’ve got to go about it with a bit more wit, and a bit less hee-haw finger-pointing, than in 22 Jump Street. It arrives in theaters at the conclusion of what appears to be a successful apology tour for Jonah Hill, who dropped the “f-bomb” on a pushy paparazzi — an incident oddly mirrored in the film, as Tatum’s Jenko berates a bad guy for using the slur: “In 2014, you can’t say the word ‘faggot.’” At its core, 22 Jump Street isn’t a homophobic movie, just as it seems likely that Hill’s apology is sincere, and he’s not a homophobic guy. But both the actor and the film would’ve been wise to consider their words, and their message, a bit more carefully.
22 Jump Street is out Friday in wide release.