Phil Lord and Christopher Miller are Hollywood's current masters of having their cake and eating it, too. Put them in an impossible position -- say, rebooting a TV series about cops going undercover in high school or turning a box of plastic bricks into a motion picture -- and they'll give you a hit movie about what a stupid movie they've made. They live in the sweet spot where good ideas and bad ideas overlap to produce great ones.
"22 Jump Street" is, thus, a pointless sequel about pointless sequels, with Jonah Hill's Schmidt and Channing Tatum's Jenko constantly complaining about how they're being forced to do the same assignment as last time, only this time in college instead of high school. As Nick Offerman's top cop explains, "We're reviving a canceled undercover police program from the '80s and revamping it for modern times. You see, the guys in charge of this stuff lack creativity and are completely out of ideas. So all they do now is recycle shit from the past and expect us all not to notice." Get it? No? How about if we repeat the same joke a few dozen times, since recycling gags is also something they're poking fun at?
Also on the menu for "22" is the homosocial tension that lingers just beneath the surface of most buddy movies, the kind that's historically been warded off with an unhealthy dose of homophobic humor. "22 Jump Street" takes that tired, offensive old trope and drags it out into the light, with Schmidt and Jenko describing their partnership in terms so intimate that a campus psychologist pegs them as a romantic couple and starts offering relationship advice. Flavorwire's Jason Bailey summarizes:
"Maybe we should investigate different people," Jenko says, when their situation comes to a head. "Sow our cop oats." It’s rather an obvious gag, as is their improvised couples therapy session with a school psychologist, who mistakes their status as partners with, y'know, "partners." Tatum's Jenko feigns indifference, while Hill overdoes the emotional instability ("He won't even hold my hand.") They do, in fact, go their separate ways -- to a montage scored by John Waite's "I Ain't Missing You" -- only to re-team and take down the bad guys during spring break in "Puerto Mexico." But Jenko wants to make sure the rules are clear: "You know this is just a one-time thing, right?" Schmidt nods, and applies sunscreen to his partner's neck.
The difference in "22 Jump Street" is that the humor is self-aware: It's meta-homophobia. (Hometaphobia?) When a third wheel enters Schmidt and Jenko's partnership in the form of a beaming blond quarterback played by Wyatt Russell, Lord and Miller stage his meeting with Jenko like a romantic comedy's meet-cute, throwing in a strained pun involving the collision of a meat sandwich and a Q-Tip for good measure. Later, Jenko blows his cover when one of the drug dealers he's meant to be hiding from uses an anti-gay slur (hint: the same one Hill had recently had to apologize for using in public), dressing him down with a lecture right out of his Human Sexuality 101 class.
The problem is that "22 Jump Street" drags out the joke for so long that it that the meta- starts to wear off, especially once it becomes clear they have no intention of taking it to its logical conclusion. Schmidt and Jenko are like a gay couple, but they're not gonna do anything yucky. Even in this putatively gay-friendly environment, there's still a buggery bugaboo: the jailhouse relationship between "21 Jump Street's" Rob Riggle and Dave Franco. At the climax of the first movie, Schmidt shot off Riggle's character's penis; it turns out he's had it replaced with a synthetic vagina, which his former accomplice and current cellmate is now expected to service regularly. Lord and Miller double-down on the gross-out joke sufficiently that it's clear that they're going for absurdist humor rather than any kind of comment on transsexuality, but the sequence still leaves a bad taste.
Vanity Fair's Richard Lawson imagines a different scenario, one where, if Schmidt and Jenko don't just do it already, the movie's at least unafraid to admit the tender bonds that can form between men without getting all weird about it.
In the same way that I would really like to see Adam Sandler develop the Jill character he created in the maybe unfairly maligned "Jack & Jill" (yes, I said it), perhaps in some sort of creative space where he doesn’t feel the need to destroy stumbled-upon sincerity with garish humor, I'd like to see Tatum and Hill really explore their disarming chemistry. It doesn't have to be a gay romance, though that would be thrilling in myriad ways. But clearly the "aren’t sequels dumb" action-comedy framework of "22 Jump Street" is just a cover for these two fine actors to investigate a particularly close bond between two men. So maybe they should find something, a little indie perhaps, where they can do just that. Leave Ice Cube's silly, misogynistic histrionics at home. Abandon the drug deals and the helicopter stunts. Maybe "23 Jump Street" is just the address of a house where they live, together. Where they can show us, with all the raucous distraction put aside for the moment, what's really going on between them.
Maybe exploring male bonding doesn't have the same degree of difficulty as adapting a children's book about edible precipitation, but it might be interesting to see Lord and Miller follow through on a good idea for once, rather than proving the great things they can do with bad ones.