’22 Jump Street’ and the Irony Event Horizon

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This is our first movie review on this site and already I’ve committed a terrible film criticism no-no: I saw 22 Jump Street without having seen its predecessor, 21 Jump Street. But the second film has anticipated this situation. Five minutes in, a police chief played by Nick Offerman and a captain played by Ice Cube (do they even have names in this movie? does it matter?) make it clear to our trusty undercover cops (Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum) that we’re just going to be doing the same damn thing as last time. They know how easy this is going to be; they also know they’ve got twice the budget they had last time and they don’t care what they spend it on. The angel of self-awareness has finally descended upon Hollywood, and its name is 22 Jump Street.

To talk about the plot would be wasteful, because this movie is above the very idea of serious stakes. It’s not just a self-spoof, but a spoof of the entire culture behind the grinding out of episodic film franchises. When Hill and Tatum arrive at the improvised police station at 22 Jump Street, they marvel at how convenient it is that another abandoned church happens to be available right across the street from the old headquarters. As they walk inside, a construction site is visible across the street, bearing an unsubtle banner: “23 Jump Street Condominiums: Coming Soon.” That’s the kind of movie this is.

The intelligence of the movie’s approach is endearing, especially for the sort of person (I’m raising my hand here) who casts a cynical eye on the Hollywood Sequel Machine that prints money by recycling plots that are only superficially different from each other. 22 Jump Street makes it easy to gather what happened in the first movie because every five minutes or so, a character will remark that what’s going on is exactly the same as last time, with just the slightest alteration. In the first movie, Hill and Tatum posed as high school students in order to expose a drug ring. It’s the same thing this time, only now they’re in college. Someone’s selling a powerful narcotic and these mismatched goofballs have to find the source. Easy.

So easy, in fact, that the cops often wind up leaving the case on the back burner because being in college is more fun than solving a crime just like one they already solved. Tatum joins the football team and Hill strikes up a romance with a young co-ed. But the cops—especially Hill, who somehow looks about ten years older than Tatum, who is actually three years Hill’s senior—aren’t fooling anyone. Jokes are constantly made about Hill’s obviously advanced age, a layered observation that not only pokes fun at Hill’s waning age-flexibility (he was well into his twenties even in Superbad) as well as Hollywood’s ancient tendency to cast high school and college roles with actors who are much older (I recently learned Dustin Hoffman was 30 when he shot The Graduate, which, wow).

The meta-narrative is so thick, in fact, that the movie becomes tedious only when it pursues the actual plot. The stakes are raised as a matter of course rather than necessity. It raises the question: If you know the task is ridiculous, and you’re self-aware about the predictability in all this, why drag it out for so long? The in-jokes are consistently funny, but we’re still dragged into shootouts and car chases to resolve the conflict that the movie, admittedly, doesn’t take seriously. Directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller want to have their cake and eat it too, even though they spend a good two-thirds of the movie making fun of the cake. Meta-narrative only works if you maintain the ironic distance; once you pass the event horizon, trying to pull back only confuses things. The movie is almost two hours long, when its real home should be closer to ninety minutes.

The screenplay for 22 Jump Street is credited to three writers (Michael Bacall, Oren Uziel, and Rodney Rothman) but really it seems like it was written by typing the word “sequel” into the Rotten Tomatoes search bar and printing out a mishmash of critical gripes. That willingness to acknowledge the movie industry’s laziness and cynicism is what makes the movie successful (especially when, during the closing credits, we see hypothetical ads for the next twenty-five Jump Street movies), but it nonetheless winds up falling into the very tropes that it sends up, which would seem like hypocrisy if actors weren’t talented enough to always look like they’re having fun. 22 Jump Street gets away with murder here, but that sort of shtick can only work once. If 23 Jump Street happens next summer, it may wind up being the very sort of movie that 22 thinks it’s better than.

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