It's happened to most people: they do something stupid and try to cover up their embarrassment by making a joke about it. Or, in the immortal word of Texas Governor Rick Perry, "Oops."
A lot of movie comedies have parlayed the cover-up into an aesthetic. They anticipate and deflect complaints about their lack of originality by acknowledging it. They make fresh jokes about a stale idea, and you're meant to think not "How lame is that?" but "How cool is that!" Long ago, critics described this tendency as self-referential — and sometimes, if the film took its tone too seriously, self-reverential. Now, though, it's "meta," a much savvier-sounding tag. And until now, the king of meta comedy was the 2012 big-screen version of the 1980s TV show 21 Jump Street, which mastered the trick of both living inside the cliché and mocking it.
(READ: Richard Corliss's review of 21 Jump Street, the movie)
Recognizing the absurdity of the premise — rookie cops infiltrating a high school by passing as 17-year-olds — screenwriter Michael Bacall and directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller turned it into a buddy comedy, with Channing Tatum as Jenko, the dim-witted jock thrilled to return to his days of glory, and Jonah Hill as Schmidt, the nerd forced to relive his adolescent years of shame.
Lord and Miller (who also directed this year's meta-meta The Lego Movie) supervised a clever blending of two old genres — one that was at pains to set itself above the TV show's churning solemnity. Hill tipped viewers to the strategy/scam by saying early in the film, “All they do is recycle shit from the past … and expect us not to notice.” Audiences noticed, laughed, approved and helped 21 Jump achieve a $200 million worldwide gross on a $40 million budget.
(READ: James Poniewozik on 21 Jump Street, the TV show and the movie)
The inevitable follow-up, 22 Jump Street, really goes meta on your ass: its best gags are about its being a sequel. The movie begins with a stentorian voice announcing, "Previously, on 21 Jump Street ..." And since the first film's title was the address of a police station, the sequel obliges the cops to move across the street to new headquarters. (Next to the old station we briefly spot condominiums under construction at "23 Jump Street.") Sending Jenko and Schmidt to college, where the tuition is much higher, annoys their captain (Ice Cube), who warns against the conventional wisdom that "doubling the budget guarantees twice the profit." Like with a more expensive movie sequel. But you already got that.
So far, so smart — you and the movie. Things get divinely crazier during the closing credits, which shows clips from more than a dozen Jump Street sequels, from 23 into the 30s. (Stay until the very end.) In between, Tatum gets to allude to his role in White House Down: Jenko wants to become a Secret Service agent and guard the President. And Hill gets involved in some tortuous emotions that seem pretty effeminate. It's chronologically impossible, but if these scenes were intended to soften the angry response to Hill's recent homophobic slur, that would be meta to the max.
(READ: Nick Gillespie says, Don't Accept Jonah Hill's Apology)
The problem is that nearly two hours of rationalizing repetition, even by winking at it, can get wearying. We get the same drug-investigation plot as the first film's, just with different suspects (including the jock ingratiatingly played by Wyatt Russell, son of Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell). For long stretches, as Jenko takes part in fraternity and football shenanigans, 22 Jump Street wanders over to Zac Efron's frat house in Neighbors and moves in. Toward the end it channels Spring Breakers, though in Mexico, not Tampa, and without the Harmony Korine movie's clinical comedic insanity or James Franco's hallucinogenic work as a zonked-out drug pimp.
(READ: Richard Corliss's review of Spring Breakers)
The best comic turns are by the Afro-Asian twins Keith and Kenny Lucas, whose timing is eerie and superb, and by Jillian Bell as Mercedes, the grouchy roommate of Schmidt's new girlfriend (Amber Stevens). Mercedes is instantly onto Schmidt's geriatric status, saying he "looks like a 30-year-old eighth-grader." Hill has a few fine moments trying to fit in with the younger undergraduates — "I'm just exhausted from inventing Facebook," he claims, "or whatever kids our age are using" — and Tatum flashes a modest comic ingenuity that has been praised a little too fulsomely. One thinks of Samuel Johnson's comment on female preachers. It's a surprise that Hollywood's favorite hunk does comedy, but he doesn't do it all that well.
Neither, this time, do Lord and Miller. It is their peculiar triumph that they not only beat a dead horse but got it on its legs and entered it in the Belmont Stakes. Our minority observation: the favorite got flogged too many times and finished out of the money.