So there’s a scene in “22 Jump Street” in which Channing Tatum, clad in full-dress football uniform for the fictional Metro City State, appears to be giving a blow job to Jonah Hill. Actually, one could argue that that back-and-forth dynamic of masculine possibility defines the entire movie: We’re gay! We’re macho! We’re gay-macho! But I digress. Anyway, a skinhead villain comes upon them in the library stacks and reassures his drug-lord boss (Peter Stormare) that it’s no problem: “Boss, it’s just a couple of faggots.”
Tatum’s character, the cheerful but dim undercover cop called Jenko, explodes in anger: “What did you just call me?” So is he going to beat the guy’s ass for questioning his sexuality? No. He’s going to educate him about hate speech. “You can’t say that! You can say ‘gay,’ that’s OK. Or maybe ‘homosexual.’” If you know the person well enough and they have a sense of humor, he continues, you might even get away with “queer.” That scene – funny, surprising and more than a little preposterous -- sums up the appeal, and the limitations, of this ultra-self-aware franchise, which has taken the latent homoeroticism of every buddy-cop drama, pulled it to the surface and allowed it to bloom into a thousand flowers.
Here we are in the summer of 2014, pausing an action scene in a goofball Hollywood comedy to tell the audience not to call people “faggots,” just as Jonah Hill, recipient of the imaginary blow job, has to go on TV and apologize for doing exactly that. It’s either the high point of pop-culture sexual tolerance since the early career of David Bowie or it’s something else, possibly a moment of widespread bewilderment and hypocrisy. Either way, “22 Jump Street” is the good-natured, sloppily rendered pile of balderdash for that moment, a movie that’s immune to all criticism and not worth bothering to dislike.
If you enjoyed writing-directing tandem Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s peculiar 2012 reboot of “21 Jump Street,” which turned a forgotten and non-lamented 1980s TV series into an extended sketch comedy routine for Tatum and Hill, then you’ll enjoy this sequel. (They're the same duo behind "The Lego Movie," the irresistible if exhausting animated hit.) Because it’s exactly the same movie, with the gags feebly updated for a collegiate setting, a new array of angry glares from Ice Cube, several ridiculous chase scenes, an obligatory drug freakout and a thoroughly unlikely romantic interest for Schmidt, Hill’s character. Once again the duo are tasked to go undercover and sniff out a drug ring that’s destroying the youth of America, and once again the so-called plot is not even remotely the point.
What is the point, you ask? One might as well inquire what the point was of “Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy,” although I don’t kid myself that anyone in this movie’s target audience has seen that, or will get the reference. Hill and Tatum make a classic and highly successful comedy team, balancing a series of amiable running gags and the most familiar kind of slapstick. Jenko is the athletic and perfectly proportioned hunk who’s none too swift; Schmidt is the cowardly, out-of-shape couch potato who’s way too confident. We are meant to understand, of course, that both actors are in on the joke: We know or believe that Tatum is smart enough to know he’s playing to stereotype, and that Hill is by all accounts a great guy rather than a vain and supercilious jerk. Furthermore, it’s not as if winking at the audience and acting slightly above the material is some new invention in comedy; I don’t know whether Tatum and Hill have seen the Marx Brothers, or Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, but Lord and Miller definitely have.
In fact, there’s nothing new in this paper-thin collegiate farce – we get scenes of frat life, the football team, boring and pervy professors, slam poetry and spring break, all of it distinctly third-rate – except, perhaps, for the homoerotic subtext-turned-text. Jenko and Schmidt are either too dense to notice that they relate to each other as lovers or they simply don’t care, and either way it’s supposed to be simultaneously a sign of progress and completely hilarious. Mind you, I’m not even sure I’m offering a critique here: It actually is funny when Jenko and Schmidt wind up holding hands and talking about their commitment issues in a psychologist’s office, after he misunderstands their use of the word “partner.”
There isn’t a smidgen of conscious or intentional homophobia in “22 Jump Street,” which is certainly an improvement on the stream of angst-ridden gay-themed humor that runs through many Apatow-style comedies. (The infamous debate between Jason Bateman and Jason Sudeikis in “Horrible Bosses” on the subject of which of them is more likely to be raped in prison is a classic example, but hardly an isolated one.) I was going to say that there’s still a slight undercurrent of the idea that homosexuality is inherently funny in this movie, but even that is not entirely fair. Hill has a hilarious erotic near miss with “Eastbound & Down” co-star Jillian Bell (who nearly steals the entire movie in a thoroughly hostile supporting role) that supports the thesis that heterosexuality is pretty funny too.
It would also be pretty stupid to observe that “22 Jump Street” is not a serious enough movie to offer any real perspective on contemporary sexual mores. First of all, that’s obvious: The point of the film lies in Tatum’s elaborate, drawn-out double takes, or the way that Hill can nurse self-pity and a misguided sense of intellectual superiority right to the edge of being intolerable. (And also in watching Ice Cube destroy an entire luncheon buffet.) Or actually, no: The real point of “22 Jump Street,” the meta-point, arrives at the very end, when scenes from the dozens of sequels Lord and Miller will presumably never make play over the closing credits: the one in culinary school, the one in ballet school, the one in outer space and the one that involves mariachi costumes. Definitely stay for those! They might be funnier than the movie that precedes them.
Secondly, it’s not even true that dopey Hollywood comedies don’t offer a gauge of what’s going on in society. They often do so more transparently, and with less pretension, than dutiful dramas about “serious issues.” So here’s where we are as a nation, in the era of Michael Sam and Jason Collins: The football stud may or may not be giving his chunky friend a blow job in the library – and the idea that such a thing could happen may or may not be funny in itself. (Later in the film, the life-saving deus ex machina also involves Jenko making intimate contact with Schmidt’s crotch.) They’re gay or they’re clueless or it’s all a big, funny misunderstanding. We don’t know how we feel about any of that, but we feel sheepish about the bad things we used to say, and we sort of, kind of halfway promise not to do it anymore.