Saturday, June 14, 2014

22 JUMP STREET - 2 Geniuses Go Back 2 School

Yes, I'm sorry for the terrible grammar pun. And no, I'm not talking about Tatum and Hill.

Not that Tatum and Hill aren't great - they are. In fact, as good as they were in 21 Jump Street (and much to my surprise, they were a stand-out part of a film that had no right being that legitimately good), they're even better here, not only reinforcing their memorable character traits but evolving their personal arcs and developing the relationship between undercover cops Jenko and Schmidt.

But the secret weapon of this film is the directing/sometimes-writing team of Phil Lord and Chris Miller. I'm not quite certain if these two are just once-in-a-generation geniuses or if they actually sold their souls to the Elder Gods in exchange for their supernatural gifts, but they've made a career out of taking "no-win" premises for films (beginning with the hilarious Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and culminating in the year's best movie so far) and turning them into massive hits with critics and audiences. But while 21 had the benefit of being a refreshing surprise, 22 has the albatross around its neck of being a comedy sequel. And as anyone who's seen Caddyshack II, Ghostbusters IIMen in Black II or The Hangover Part II can tell you, screwing those up is all too easy.

The elegant solution that 22 comes up with? Acknowledging that right off the bat. While its predecessor was a self-aware satire both of cop-centric action movies and high school dramas, this films dives headfirst into meta territory by all but talking directly to the camera. The result is a film that doesn't quite break the fourth wall the way Blazing Saddles (literally) does, but is a commentary on both its genre and its own franchise much the way that Galaxy Quest was riffing on Star Trek, only here the film is taking shots at its literal forebear rather than a spiritual one. But it's every bit as successful. "Make it exactly like the first time" is a running joke through the first half of the film, because that's how most comedy sequels try - and fail - to replicate the success of the original, but once the film acknowledges (in ITS OWN PLOT, no less) that this approach doesn't work, the film is free to go even more nuts than before.

It would still be easy for the movie to go off the rails completely (and there are a couple moments where the train seems to be leaning precariously), but the story is still anchored by both the chemistry that Tatum and Hill have on-screen, and the uproarious lengths the film goes to in order to take the bromance from 21 into full-on rom-com ROMANCE territory. Most of the dialogue regarding the "partnership" is straight out of a Sandra Bullock or Julia Roberts movie from the late 90's. Ingeniously, the movie and the actors both play it 100% straight-faced, not succumbing to the "Ew, they're acting GAY" repulsiveness of an Adam Sandler film or sacrificing the genuine emotion behind the relationship, but still making the drama both believable and hilarious.

Yes, believable emotional drama that's also hilarious to watch. These guys are basically wizards.

The gift for comedy - whether it's satirical, physical, visual, situational, or any other-al - on display is astounding. This element is always the most subjective part of any analysis, but just about every single joke in this film worked for me, and by the time I reached the end credits (which are every bit as glorious as you've heard, but do yourself a favor and don't spoil them, just see the damn movie), I was laughing so hard I cried. And there's stuff I'm sure I missed (Lord and Miller love to sprinkle background references into their films), so this is one of the rare comedies that might actually improve with repeat viewings, where most see noticeably diminishing returns.

Comedy has been compared, by people far smarter than myself, to magic, the repetition of which ruins the experience. Lord and Miller are firmly aware of this, having passed on other sequels to their films (they didn't direct Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2 and turned down a sequel to The LEGO Movie), but here use the central problem of replicating that success the method by which they approach their story. They use the form of comedy sequels to comment on their function, which is such an outside-the-box approach to blockbuster movie-making that you really have to wonder how much smarter they are than everyone else in the room when they're pitching these films. And while they don't manage a perfect job on 22, wizards though they are, the simple fact that they made a great sequel to a great comedy is downright miraculous.

And because "repetition is the death of magic," I can't in good conscience go into more detail about the story turns, or the absolutely-on-FIRE supporting cast, or the recurring gags, or the visual references to classic films, or the legitimately great action beats, or the meta-commentary on the franchise, because these are things that have to be experienced. This film as a whole is a must-see summer movie, and the high point of the season so far (unless you count The Winter Soldier), so take the leap.

No, I'm not sorry for that one.

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