22 Jump Street: Can the Bromance Survive Without Bromophobia?

Reviews of the latest films.
June 11 2014 7:57 PM

22 Jump Street

Can the bromance survive without bromophobia?

22 Jump Street.
Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill in 22 Jump Street.

Photo by Glen Wilson/Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc.

22 Jump Street, directors Chris Miller and Phil Lord’s follow-up to their hit 2011 buddy-cop comedy 21 Jump Street (itself inspired by an ’80s TV series), critic-proofs itself from the first scenes by foregrounding and mocking its own status as a crassly opportunistic sequel. As our heroes, incompetent junior officers Jenko (Channing Tatum) and Schmidt (Jonah Hill) are assigned by their perennially angry supervisor, Capt. Dickson (Ice Cube) to a case that resembles their last mission, Dickson grumbles, “We’ve doubled the budget, as if that would double the profit.” Later, a police higher-up played by Nick Offerman warns the boys not to expect the surprise success they enjoyed on their last big bust: “It’s never as good the second time.”

Dana Stevens Dana Stevens

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

Disarming potential criticism by proudly brandishing one’s own laziness: It’s a well-worn class-clown move, and 22 Jump Street (scripted by Michael Bacall, Rodney Rothman, and Oren Uziel) is a genial class clown of a movie. It doesn’t put in quite as much effort as its (already underachieving) predecessor, and it coasts some on its charm, but it’s fun enough company that you’re willing to forgive it a lot—even the mild strain of homophobia that underlies its (and maybe every?) bromance premise.

But we’ll get to 22 Jump Street’s subterranean sexual anxieties in a minute. Above ground, it’s a goofy pseudo-thriller that transposes the last film’s high school drug-ring story onto a college campus, leaving virtually every other detail the same. This time, the fictional synthetic superdrug is called Whyphy (pronounced “Wi-Fi,” a fact the marginally literate Jenko struggles to grasp). Jenko and Schmidt must reassume their previous fake identities—un-lookalike brothers Doug and Joey McQuaid—to pose as students, infiltrate the university, and find whoever is behind the manufacture and distribution of this insidious substance. (At one point, our cops are unknowingly dosed with the drug, resulting in a clever split-screen psychedelic scene during which the neurotic Schmidt forcibly drags the laid-back Jenko from the good-trip to the bad-trip side.)

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As their fake freshman year of college wears on, Jenko and Schmidt’s friendship, forged over the course of the last movie, begins to grow strained. The jockish Jenko finds a soul mate in frat bro Zook (Wyatt Russell, son of Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn, who’s inherited his parents’ leonine beauty as well as their comic flair). Zook asks for nothing from life but a spot on the varsity football team, long hours lifting in the gym with his bros, and a steady stream of weekend ragers. It’s a philosophy with which Jenko vibes so deeply that he neglects to pursue leads that may link Zook to the drug ring. Worse still (at least by the lights of this movie, which privileges the friendship plot over the crime-fighting story), Jenko starts to blow off his lonely partner’s text invitations to hang out.

The socially awkward Schmidt is clearly wounded by his pal’s abandonment, but he distracts himself by courting slinky art student Maya (Amber Stevens), at one point delivering a memorably terrible slam poetry performance to impress her. As the two friends drift in different directions, their tense encounters begin to resemble breakup conversations: “Maybe we should investigate other people,” suggests Jenko in one charged moment. There’s even a couples-therapy scene that plays on the double meaning of the word partner, with the therapist assuming that the two men’s estrangement is romantic in nature as they quarrel like an old married couple.

Though 22 Jump Street goes out of its way to disavow overt homophobia—when a frat bro uses an anti-gay epithet similar to the one Hill himself recently had to apologize for throwing at a paparazzo, he’s summarily chewed out by our right-thinking heroes—several scenes got me thinking about the future of the straight male buddy comedy, which has long depended on Friends-style “hey, we’re not gay” jokes—the kind that poke fun at male heterosexual insecurity, while also cordoning off same-sex love as an impossibility so remote as to be comical. As same-sex marriage becomes more common and anti-gay slurs (hopefully) more socially stigmatized, what will become of this brand of lighthearted bromophobia? The superfluity of that therapy scene—and a few others centering around the same played-out joke—made me wonder if it may be time for the bromance to evolve or die.

But Tatum and Hill have developed a comic chemistry that plays to both their strengths. Tatum, in particular, makes the most of his character’s lunkheaded innocence, and while I’m not yet convinced of Jonah Hill’s range (with Moneyball being a welcome exception), he’s firmly in his comfort zone as the hypersensitive and needy Schmidt. Other funny performances occur around the movie’s margins. Jillian Bell play’s Maya’s ever-present and ever-judgmental roommate, who can’t stop commenting in a nasal monotone on the McQuaid brothers’ evident post-collegiate age and probable status as narcs. And twins Keith and Kenny Lucas, looking so alike I thought at first they were a split-screen effect, play the cops’ chirpy half-black, half-Asian suitemates, who are so attuned to each other they not only finish each other’s sentences but conduct whole conversations in perfect unison—a simple gag that works only because of the Lucas’ precise comic timing.

Phil Lord and Chris Miller—who, in addition to 21 Jump Street, have also made two triumphant animated films, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and The Lego Movie—stuff every scene with an excess of verbal and visual gags that pay homage to a wide range of comic influences. In one ingeniously staged car chase, a football-helmet-shaped mini-vehicle pursues a full-size car past a campus building emblazoned with the words “Benjamin Hill Film Studies Center,” as a Benny Hill–esque theme tootles in the background. The closing credits turn the joke-density dial even higher, envisioning the posters and promotional campaigns for an endless succession of progressively numbered Jump Street sequels in which our heroes go undercover to solve crimes at a culinary school, a ninja school, a beauty school, and eventually, a retirement home. I’m not sure I’d stick around for every one of those projected installments, but summer movies being what they are, I might not be averse to a trip up the street to No. 23.

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