The deconstruction of comedy

BY MATTHEW BYRD | JUNE 19, 2014 5:00 AM

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If I had to pick a reason I was nervously expecting disappointment entering 22 Jump Street, it would probably be that what made the original 21 Jump Street such a joy to watch isn’t exactly replicable.

The mixture of pure shock that a film adaptation of the somewhat mediocre ’80s teen series could be any damn good, its sly, modern anarchic sense of comedy, and its being anchored in the brilliant conceit that high school in the 21st century is no longer defined by the jock-nerd binaries of semesters past is a formula so singular that relegating it to just one film, in my humble opinion, would be wiser than not. 

So much for my wisdom. 

The plot of 22 Jump Street is essentially the same as its predecessor, which acts as a sort of running satire of Hollywood’s sequel obsession. Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum), two mismatched cops, go undercover at a college to find the supplier of a new drug called “WHYPHY” (a fictionalized version of Molly). It’s all fundamentally pointless — not in the sense that it’s a simple vehicle for mindless explosions, fistfights, and gunplay (though it is) — but in that 22 Jump Street is a film more concerned with the details of its own construction than anything else.

A construction brilliantly assembled by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the directing team whose trademark, after the Jump Street films and the masterpiece that was this year’s LEGO Movie, can now be said to be taking big-budget, mainstream Hollywood films and using them to launch a Trojan Horse assault on the very notion of films such as 22 Jump Street, tired reboots of existing pop-culture entities. 

Lord and Miller take the humor of 21 Jump Street, essentially slapstick gags above a veneer of satirical joy, and blow it up to “Arrested Development” levels of layered complexity, with slapstick on top of running gags on top of wordplay on top of callbacks to the original film, on top of cultural satire (the film’s meta-commentary on the self-aggrandizing intellectual discovery of undergraduates is particularly ingenious) on top of jokes within gags within slapstick that act as callbacks. It’s refreshing to see a film eschew the lazy attitude pervasive in American comedy (i.e. The Hangover Films, A Million Ways to Die in the West), in favor of smart, rigidly shaped labyrinths of joy, a dissertation (with a plethora of footnotes) rather than a hastily constructed term paper. 

If the film could be faulted for anything, it’s that the core principle is somewhat lacking in presence, amounting to basically “You drift apart from your old friends in college, and you’ll discover new things, but eventually the core of your friendship will bring you back together,” is a little tired and, if we’re being honest with ourselves, not necessarily true. It falls well short of the cleverness of the first film’s deconstruction of our pop culture’s view of what high school “is.”

Nevertheless, 22 Jump Street is comedic filmmaking of the highest order. And, if there’s one single anecdotal reason to see this film, it’s that Ice Cube is perfect as the foul-mouthed captain of Jump Street. It’s really a pleasure to see Cube in a decent movie again.

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