One of the biggest selling points of 21 Jump Street, the 2012 TV-remake comedy, turned out to be its seemingly unscripted lunacy, the way it put Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill in police-shorts outfits and let them riff on their characters’ mutual ineptitude. Sometimes you need a little flapdoodle, and the fun of watching Tatum and Hill ribbing each other for 90-odd minutes was more than enough to make up for the movie’s bumpy, bagful-of-gags shape. As undercover cops who pose as teenagers to root out drug dealers at the local high school, Tatum and Hill made an unlikely but weirdly charming team: Tatum’s Jenko was the sleepy-eyed jock with no qualms about slipping back into high-school society, clearly happy to re-create the best years of his life. Hill’s Schmidt was the awkward but bright loser who’d probably had more than a lifetime’s worth of being slammed into lockers. Their Mutt-and-Jeff bickering eventually mellowed into a friendship as comfy as a rumpled T-shirt, and watching them jab elbows along the way was a ridiculous delight. They wore the scars of their bruiser bromance like late-night drunken tattoos.
Now there’s a sequel, named, with brilliant illogic, 22 Jump Street, but the magic has dimmed a bit. This time Jenko and Schmidt have been assigned to a local college — their boss, once again, is played by a splendidly surly Ice Cube — where it’s their duty to find and arrest the dealer who’s spreading a powerful drug around campus. It’s called WHYPHY (pronounced “Wi-Fi,” in case you couldn’t guess) and it’s a miracle substance that makes you really focused for an hour or so, and then totally messes up your head, in the good way. Unfortunately, the person responsible just may be Jenko’s new best friend, a puka-shell-wearing football player and frat guy named Zook (Wyatt Russell, son of Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell and bearing the comic-timing DNA of both).
Schmidt’s feelings are deeply hurt by Jenko’s preoccupation with his new buddy, though he tries not to show it. He keeps himself busy by scrambling onstage at a poetry slam (sample lyric: “Jesus cried. Runaway bride!”) in order to impress a possible love interest (played by Amber Stevens, an actress with Nefertiti eyes). Meanwhile, Jenko and Zook get along like fraternity brothers: They spot each other during grunt-heavy weight-lifting sessions, and Zook is duly impressed by Jenko’s ability to remove beer-bottle caps with his eye sockets. Jenko and Schmidt drift apart; the movie makes numerous homoerotic references to this fading friendship, but only in a “Totally yankin’ your chain, bro!” way.
It’s there that 22 Jump Street wobbles off the rails. The directing team of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (the masterminds of not just 21 Jump Street but also The Lego Movie and the much-loved Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs), along with writers Michael Bacall, Oren Uziel, and Rodney Rothman, pack the movie with lots of loosey-goosey dynamite, jokes that revel in their own puerility, accompanied by a knowing wink. But Lord and Miller go overboard on the nudge-nudge gay jokes, as when Jenko and Schmidt find themselves in a counseling session with a shrink who assumes they’re a couple. “I feel like he’s just not trying anymore!” Schmidt wails. Jenko retorts that he could just use a little more space. It’s not that this gag, or any of the others in 22 Jump Street, is blatantly homophobic. (And Hill’s recent real-life outburst, in which he flung an unacceptable word at a paparazzo who was harassing him, shouldn’t be held against the movie. Even in a world rife with teary celebrity retractions, Hill’s subsequent Tonight Show apology suggested genuine regret.) It may just be that Lord and Miller are misfiring in their attempts to explore the complexities of friendships between men. But whatever they’re trying to say remains indistinct and noncommittal, even as they seem a little too obsessed with it; the recurring “gay, not-gay” jokes are neither particularly funny nor insightful, and they push the movie slightly out of whack.
But then, suddenly, there’s Tatum’s Jenko trying to cut a pane of glass with a laser pointer, and it’s easy to forgive. 22 Jump Street isn’t uncharitable or mean-spirited; at worst, it’s just confused. Tatum is, predictably, adorable. His Jenko is a pumped-up naïf bumbling through life with a crooked smile, and Hill again makes a great sparring partner. Hill knows how to milk Schmidt’s hurt feelings for laughs instead of fake pathos — it’s a testament to his gifts that he doesn’t overplay the sad-sack routine.
But the biggest surprise of 22 Jump Street is another duo, the identical-twin comedy team the Lucas Brothers (stars of the marvelous Comedy Central bonbon The Super Late Morning Show, as well as the creators of the Fox animated series Lucas Bros. Moving Co.). As Jenko and Schmidt’s super-laid-back dorm neighbors Keith and Kenny Yang — their African-American-Chinese heritage is part of the joke — they not only finish each other’s sentences but also reel off complete thoughts simultaneously, in perfect synchronicity. What’s wonderful is the surprised delight they show every time this happens, which is often: They turn to each other, facing off in their identical horn-rimmed glasses and upturned caps, and bask in the zany wonder of their from-the-womb mind-meld. The Lucas Brothers, whose names really are Kenny and Keith, don’t get much screen time in 22 Jump Street, but the movie takes a leap whenever they show up. They’re its biggest WHYPHY high.