Raucous, fun, silly, and surprisingly witty, the unexpectedly enjoyable 22 Jump Street plays like a spoof of Hollywood screenwriting and Hollywood mechanics in general.
Author Blake Snyder once wrote a very famous book on screenwriting called Save the Cat! In the book, he offered practical advice on how to make a typical three-act screenplay more solid, tapping into a well-worn, nearly-eternal set of storytelling rules that all aspiring writer should cleave to. This book was helpful for a while, but, after seeing enough movies, one can easily come to the conclusion that it may also be a detriment to movies in general. If all movies begin to cleave to the proven formula, the formula wears out more quickly. It doesn’t take your average critic or movie buff to recognize that many movies follow a similar storytelling structure, and, as a result, feel kind of same-y. The book has caused a new fervency in the pseudo-worship of story over anything else. I will invoke Ebert’s Law in response: A film is not about what it’s about, but how it’s about it.
The writers of 22 Jump Street have clearly read Save the Cat!, seen a lot of movies, and are clearly having a grand time skewering the rules. This is a film wherein the characters cite what part of the plot they are living through, how their own movie seems to be working, and how they need to skimp on the budget as they go along. This is a witty and funny spoof of Hollywood tropes that is desperately needed in a time of remakes, reboots, adaptations, and a general sameness of entertainments.
The original 21 Jump Street film (from 2012) was an unexpected surprise for many audiences, turning the moody and stern 1987 TV series (about younger-looking cops posing as high school students) into a bright and broad slapstick farce with more wit and energy than such a product would rightly deserve. Now we have a sequel to a remake, and the filmmakers are taking their self-awareness to new highs. This time around, the main characters Schmidt (Jonah Hill, born in 1983) and Jenko (Channing Tatum, born in 1980) are posing as college freshmen, working on the exact same kind of case they were in the last movie. “Just do the same thing over again,” a superior advises them, speaking in the voice of a studio exec. When it comes time to do something dramatic during an action sequence, Channing Tatum is advised to yell something cool. He yells “Something cool!”
The credits montage is one of the funniest, best satires of Hollywood I have seen outside of MAD Magazine. Also, there is a direct reference to White House Down, the Channing Tatum film from last year that you should be ashamed for missing.
The arch satire is what makes the film good, but what makes it truly enjoyable is the wild energy that spills out of the screen. Hill is funny as the wound-up cop, but Tatum steals the show as the kind-of-thick, easily-distracted jock (sample dialogue: “Stupid brain.”). I would never have thought these two would make a good comedy duo, but they have made two hilarious films together. May they make more. 22 Jump Street may be ostensibly a cop movie, but it’s structured more like a romance between the two leads, including several near-kiss moments, bitter arguments, and a scene where they have to actually pose as lovers in order to fool a shrink, only to speak out their real relationship dramas. In many ways, 22 Jump Street is a straight up gay romance.
In recent years, the cinematic spoof has been suffering a lot; I have not met a single defender of the Friedberg/Seltzer cycle of comedies (Date Movie, Epic Movie, Disaster Movie, Meet the Spartans, etc. etc.), which has been carrying the torch for about a decade. I encourage defenders to come forward. 22 Jump Street is not only the kind of spoof that will make you laugh, but it’s the kind of comedy that the spoof genre needs at this particular moment in film history. It’s lightweight instead of high-concept. Silly instead of crass. It’s the funniest movie I’ve seen in a while.