No matter how great your impressions are, how impeccable your timing, how clever your word play, one of, if not the hardest thing in comedy is knowing precisely what it is about you that’s funny. Is it your haircut? Your hipsterism? Your lopsided titties? What aspect of your personality/image is funniest to a complete stranger? It can take a hard, honest look in the mirror at your lopsided titties to figure this out, and some never do. The beauty of 22 Jump Street is that Lord and Miller and company know exactly what it is about the 22 Jump Street concept that’s funny: the fact that it’s a concept at all.
You may be too busy laughing to care, but it’s hard to know what you’re watching at first. There are non-stop jokes, and despite over-the-top action set pieces throughout, 22 Jump Street makes no attempt to be a believable action-comedy. It’d be almost like Pineapple Express in its attempt to marry jack-off humor and “badass” action, only the action doesn’t truly try to be badass (mostly), and the plot never requires you to be that invested in the stakes of it. It’s nearly Seltzer-Friedbergian in the sheer amount of referencing, only the references aren’t random and unfunny. In fact, despite the near-constant fourth-wall breaking, you soon realize that the target of nearly all the jokes in the film is the making of said film itself. It’s a parody, not of cop shows in general, but of the very idea of trying to make a commercial comedy sequel to a film based on a not-intentionally-comedic TV show from the 90s, specifically. It realizes, correctly, that the most absurd thing about 22 Jump Street is the fact that someone is trying to make a movie called “22 Jump Street” at all. This a grand feat of self-awareness.
It’s often been said (usually by me) that no one makes good spoofs anymore. In 22 Jump Street, Lord and Miller have not only created the rare successful modern spoof, they’ve created, dare I say it, a new kind of spoof. The self-spoof. (And yes, Australian readers, I realize “spoof” is slang for semen – I wrote this headline just for you).
That it’s a self-spoof might not be entirely clear until the final credits, which include a sequence so good it bumps the film up an entire letter grade all by itself. Before that, there are a lot of tongue-in-cheek references to movie making that the less film literate might not even get. “It’s the same case! Just do the same f*ckin’ thing!” Ice Cube shouts, invoking probably the exact directive the studio gave the filmmakers. (That same staccato punch that made Cube a great rapper makes everything he says funnier, and all his lines hit way harder than they should).
It soon transitions into a bromance movie with the narrative structure of a rom-com, going so far as to reference the concept of the “meet-cute” with a pun on “meat cute” (because it involves a q-tip and a meat sandwich, you see). I’m guessing Lord and Miller’s food pun experience in Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs must have come in handy here. That 22 Jump Street is an extended riff on the rom-com but with dudes playing the lovers wouldn’t really work on its own, and has basically already been done in I Love You, Man and Superbad, among others (it’s high-larious because they’re not actually gay!). But it works in 22 Jump Street because they’re so overt about making fun of every plot point. How many people in the audience even know what a “meet cute” is? Lord and Miller’s timing is so good, and Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum play their parts so well that the average moviegoer is probably going to enjoy it on a surface level, but there’s also this Titicaca-like reservoir of meta-ness to soothe the liberal arts major. And as a liberal arts major who loves caca, I can appreciate that.
Similarly, so many of these modern action comedies have a problem integrating action and comedy. Even my beloved Your Highness had some action sequences that felt like they came from a completely different movie. Shane Black’s eighties and nineties classics are basically the only films I’ve seen that are able to combine near Three Stooges-level comedy with action scenes that actually have stakes and feel like straight-up action scenes. The other option is to do it like Naked Gun does, using every action sequence as a mere opportunity for slapstick and gags, compelling even with no legitimate stakes or peril for the characters. A lot of recent movies have wanted to have it both ways (30 Minutes Or Less being an especially bad offender), putting the characters in legitimate peril while the thrust of the scene is still some jokey riffing. Which doesn’t really work, because a Seth Rogen type doesn’t go from stoney baloney slacker guy to a someone who’s still making jokes when he’s being shot at. A guy who’s making jokes while he’s being shot at is some kind of Charlie Bronson badass who eats lit cigars and pisses in death’s general direction. You can’t have the same character be Seth Rogen and Charlie Bronson in the same movie. 22 Jump Street still isn’t perfect at integrating action and comedy, but its insane level of self-awareness gives it leeway, because it’s overtly parodying the idea that the studio wants them to have these crazy action scenes. Culminating in a chase scene where a car pointedly crashes through a sculpture representing “togetherness” when the two main characters are most at odds. Again, I don’t think the average moviegoer is going to notice stuff like this, especially on first watch, but holy shit, it’s pretty brilliant. And there’s something to be said for a movie that actually improves the more you analyze and think about it rather than falls apart, as is standard. Have I mentioned we’re having this discussion about 22 F*CKING JUMP STREET? Lord and Miller are miracle workers.
I don’t think the self-aware touches are the reason 22 Jump Street works, I think it works because of the comedic timing, the chemistry of its perfectly-cast leads, and because of directors that are almost as good at staging sight gags as the Zucker brothers in their prime (I’m not sure a sequel to 21 Jump Street is their ideal canvas, but as the plot of this movie shows, neither are they). But the big question on everyone’s mind going into a movie like 22 Jump Street is not only “is it funny?” but “why does this exist?” 22 Jump Street actually has an answer, the the final sequence drives home the concept in a big way.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. You can find more of his work on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.