Phil Lord and Christopher Miller seem determined to disprove dozens of misconceptions about the Hollywood system, the first and most central being that big budget widely advertised films must be intrinsically dumbed down. With the two Jump Street films and February’s The Lego Movie, this duo is demonstrating once and for all that Hollywood’s big-budget projects need not appeal to the lowest common denominator to be successful. In other words, their work disproves the longstanding Hollywood principle that the film-viewing public is a bunch of no good slobs who wouldn’t know talent if it hit them in the face. 22 Jump Street is playful and witty, packed with a wide gamut of humor (from high, dry wit to dick and fart jokes), but most of all, it demonstrates a refreshing level of respect for its audience. Lord and Miller are doing the impossible, they are working deep within the Hollywood system—interacting with the same studio executives and producers behind Hollywood’s general schlock—yet they are putting out films with clever scripts, sharp direction, and innovative visual techniques and effects.
Directors: Phil Lord, Christopher Miller
Producers: Jonah Hill, Neal H. Moritz, Channing Tatum
Writers: Michael Bacall, Oren Uziel, Rodney Rothman, Jonah Hill
Cinematographer: Barry Peterson
Editors: Keith Brachmann, David Rennie
Music: Mark Mothersbaugh
Cast: Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Peter Stormare, Wyatt Russell, Amber Stevens, Jillian Bell, Ice Cube, The Lucas Brothers, Nick Offerman,
US Theatrical Release: June 13, 2014
US Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Lord and Miller’s success also goes in the face of much of film criticism, demonstrating that the auteurist, writer-director is not the only way of producing quality work. Here a pair of co-directors (a big no-no in the auteurist school, whose central pillar is that a film should be the vision of one individual) and a completely separate team of writers have created something unique and exciting. Four writers and two directors is more standard for television than it is for film, and most films helmed this way end up being cookie-cutter exercises, but somehow this team can coalesce and continually push ideas and jokes without watering down their collective authorial voice. Admittedly, this has historically been easier with comedies, where a room full of writers can just mean more jokes to work into the story, but the unity of the script is genuinely impressive.
While The Lego Movie elevated the sophistication of the children’s animated genre to prodigious heights, it remained a children’s movie; 22 Jump Street has no such restrictions, and as such it bears the full extent of its R rating. The story follows immediately from Lord and Miller’s 2012 21 Jump Street—in which police partners Jenko (Channing Tatum) and Schmidt (Jonah Hill) went undercover in a high school to take down a major drug ring. This installment finds our unlikely duo doing essentially the same thing, going undercover in a college (generically names Metropolitan City State University) to take down a new designer drug called “WhyPhy” (pronounced Wi-Fi). As their Deputy Chief (Nick Offerman) puts it in an early scene of clever economic double-talk, they need to do “the exact same thing as last time,” only with “twice as much money,” to make sure that everyone is happy. Such meta-narrative asides, built into the dialogue, pepper the film liberally yet they never fully break the fourth wall. This film may well be the most self-referential comedy of the decade, and its clever, self-aware perspective harkens back to Airplane or the Naked Gun movies more than it does to Jonah Hill’s Apatow-scented pedigree.
Ice Cube also figures more prominently in this film than in 21 Jump Street, as the duo’s direct superior, Captain Dickson, in the now doubly funded Jump Street division. He is a tough and funny foil to the near-amorous relationship between Schmidt and Jenko, and it’s Cube’s best role in years. This position allows the film to delve into uncomfortable, and quite clever, racial issues amidst the relentless joke-a-minute screenplay.
In fact, the general politics of this film (like The Lego Movie’s) are delightfully progressive. Most of the heart of the plot centers on the relationship between the partners, and many gags are built around a slight tweaking of the meaning of that word. Other characters constantly mistake the two for a couple (partners) and they play along, since while undercover they cannot reveal that they are cops (partners). But far from a knee-jerk homophobic response—like in such recent garbage as Adam Sandler’s I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry—Jenko and Schmidt respond with general grace, leading to a handful of clever scenes that detail the progression of their investigation as if it were the progression of their relationship (“I think we should have an open investigation,” says Jenko). Even a hunk like Channing Tatum shows a sensitive side in these gags, and it makes for a much more interesting interaction than the ordinary “no you’re gay” of big-budget comedies. And although the film features too few women in major roles, it seems to have relatively progressive gender politics too, evidenced by a scene where a woman shames one of our heroes into a fist-fight by telling him his desire to not hit a girl is intrinsically sexist. This is not to say that the film is entirely without the unfortunate trappings of its genre. Like comedies going back to vaudeville, a lot of the humor comes from feminizing a male character—sensitive, pudgy, Schmidt. But on the whole, its political leanings are refreshingly non-conformist, and the comic core is better for it.
Lord and Miller are also clearly in awe of the films that have come before, and their quippy film references demonstrate a love of the art form. From a repeated bonding sequence modeled on the lobster scene in Annie Hall to a chase scene that passes—in sped up motion—in front of the Benjamin Hill Center for Film Studies, these directors know how to slip in a few jokes for any audience. While most audience members will likely laugh more at the less referential humor, these things are hiding there for those who look. And their awe for the film form is evident in the product as well. The action sequences, though in no way gritty or realist, are exciting and truly imaginative. In a film system inundated with fight scenes, it’s getting increasingly hard to do something we haven’t seen before, but 22 Jump Street has a couple of really creative moments squeezed in between all the gags. This care and attention to detail, along with an exquisite credits sequence, makes this film a delight to see in theaters (where an audience can roar along with you).