It's no small thing, a modern comedy that is actually funny. Before "22 Jump Street" began, Karolyn and I sat through some coming attractions for pictures that were, putatively at least, comedies ("Dumb and Dumber To" by the once-great Farrelly brothers, a new one from the once-funny Melissa McCarthy). Now, I'm not in the habit of a priori reviewing, and maybe these pictures will turn out to be fonts of hilarity, but the previews sure didn't do them any favors. I could feel my brain, my heart, my soul dying a little bit. By the time we got to a trailer involving Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans, Jr. impersonating cops, we felt as though we might never laugh again.
You have to be smart to play dumb, and Channing Tatum is a very smart actor. As the "jock," Jenko, he's a big, sweet galoot, good humored, oblivious. Slow, maybe, but earnest and loyal. He's kind of innocent and naive. In one of the ways the movie is very aware it's 2014, Jenko sits in on a human sexuality course and becomes an unlikely advocate for GLBT rights. When he meets a jock/frat boy called Zook (Wyatt Russell), they strike up a bromance that derives much of its humor from how comfortable these two straight guys are with each other's bodies. It's a sweet obverse of gay-panic humor.
While Jenko infiltrates the frat in the partners' search for the bearer of a mysterious bazooka tattoo, their only clue, Schmidt manages to get close to a pretty art student (Amber Stevens) and her bohemian, poetry-slammin' crowd. Have Schmidt and Jenko found their true soul mates? Could this break them up as a couple?
Phil Lord and Christopher Miller are on a roll this year, with this picture and the inventive "The Lego Movie." (In that one, Hill and Tatum were the voices of Green Lantern and Superman, respectively.) They have established their signature and mode: slyly satirizing what they're up to even as they're getting away with it. It's probably too much to call their sensibility subversive, yet "22 Jump Street's" self-awareness of the utter pointlessness of most sequel is refreshing, and probably not an attitude that Lord and Miller's movie executive bosses want spread around too much among the movie-going public. (Though, in another layer of irony, as long as this picture brings in the bucks they're probably quite happy to take the ribbing.)
Lord and Miller's pictures are spiked with an awareness of the world outside the movie. At one point in "22" Jonah Hill winks at Ice Cube, perfectly cast as the Odd Couple's glowering boss, after tossing off a disparaging remark about a "cracker" in a feeble attempt to ingratiate himself. It's a wink that says "Hey, I know your records, Ice Cube," that says, there's a world outside of this movie where this guy used to be the controversial embodiment of African-American anger. It's good to see even Cube having a laugh at himself.
In fact everyone on the set seems to be having a good time. Jillian Bell is very funny as the art student's disapproving roommate who regards Schmidt with a withering eye and cutting tongue that zeroes in with hilarious accuracy on all of his inadequacies. (Schmidt, of course, thinks she's nice.) A mention should also be made of the Lucas Brothers, who have a recurring role as stoned roommates from across the hall whom Schmidt and Jenko meet when they move into the dorm. Smiling twins in matching horn-rimmed glasses, beards, and caps, whose sentences intertwine, they're a visual joke in and of themselves. Looking at them, you can't help wondering if you haven't ingested something yourself. They're a bit like live-action cartoon characters.
One more plus: since the final set-piece is set at Spring Break, you get to see a lot of bodies in bikinis, one of whom is deployed (to her great pleasure) by Jenko as a weapon for taking out the baddies.
And so I'd actually just like to thank this movie. It gave me a fun Saturday night out with my baby, where we could sit and laugh together, and I got to hear her great, pealing laughter filling the theater. Sometimes the movies are a shared emotional experience for us, sometimes (if it's a scary one), they're an excuse for us to huddle up close. Here, her laughter was infectious, enhancing everyone's experience with its energy, the sparks catching fire in the audience and making other people break out in laughter as well, filling the theater with cheer and warming me as it reverberated and resounded around the theater.
Key to ratings:
***** (essential viewing)
*** (worth a look)
no stars (utter shite)