I always open movie 'reviews' with the same thing, and it’s not because I’m incapable of objectively assessing a movie. I just don’t care to. As I’ve explained and even linked below, there are many critics out there more than willing to discuss 22 Jump Street’s utilization of humor, its plot, its characterizations. But if I have a bone to pick with a movie, it’s always going to be personal.
The question isn't about whether it's a good sequel, or a good movie. You can get anything on the big screen. You can redress the same old tired themes on love, isolation, hope, and have it written, sold, and produced. Any tired trope you can think of, any commentary on a phenomenon that later on will spawn counter-commentary or its own commentary, anything, anything at all. Flops can attest to the fact that even bad movies get greelighted whereas most blockbusters attest to the fact that the audience will eat up anything with the right marketing strategies. So, no, it's never a question of content for me. Besides which, I’m dumb, so I’ll probably laugh at anything if I’m expected to.
The beginning of 21 Jump Street introduced the character of Captain Dickson, striding into the scene and immediately starting in on his spiel, apprehending the members of 21 Jump Street and members of the audience. The angry black guy is a (racist and tired) trope, true, but isn't the angry black guy who's aware that he's a stereotype also a trope? This is the question I ask of sequel 22 Jump Street, a meta movie wrapped in layers upon layers of the stuff that by the end, you feel like you've been pulled between an octagon of contradictory points for the past hour plus.
As an audience, what do you look at when you wish to judge the movie? The reviewers that know what they’re talking about will commend it for being a ‘self-aware’, all around successful parody. They like to talk about the humor because when it comes down to it, that’s what people pay to see. Less capable reviewers will wax poetic on bromance and chemistry, seeming to have missed the points that the former group of reviewers lauded in the movie. The in-betweens who attempt to juggle both within their reviews rarely come out coherent.
That doesn’t answer the question, of course, because I haven’t even started yet. Call me a killjoy but I’ve never seen self-awareness as something to pat yourself on the back for. Pieces of art can be self-aware and still be horrible, although I won’t say that this is my opinion on 22 Jump Street at all. Going back to that question, does it or does it not make a difference if they milk the hell out of a cliche but in a 'meta' way, that parodies the already oft-trotted stereotype?
Now, I’m not an expert at humor, or comedy movies, so mostly, if anyone wants to dissect and explore the meta levels in the movie, I’m not your guy. I can’t give my opinions or support them with any professional credentials, and I don’t want to. I’m not a movie critic, this isn’t a review. I’m just sharing my thoughts, which is this: it depends. The answer to that question, like so many others, is that it depends. The efficacy of this type of humor depends on the audience, and the environment surrounding that audience. But I’ll get back to this later.
Again using the example in the opening paragraph, I’m generally against using the same kind of humor that had previously been used to disparage and oppress minorities, even if it's a 'politically corrected' version of the joke. But I know there will be comedians, who are of a minority, that would disagree. The reception depends entirely on your audience, however, because you can declare your intent with a joke, but you can't stake your claim on that being the only interpretation. Of course, then, you'll probably get nowhere. Why wait for the general audience to catch up when you're sitting on a pot of gold right now? Nevertheless, if the purpose of comedy is to reach an audience, then that is exactly the focus here: reception.
Those kind of jokes, bubble wrapped as they are in however many layers of irony, work by minorities for minorities, because like it or not, they don’t put a dent in white man’s racism, or his guilt, or his stunning monopoly on the entertainment industry. At the end of the day, it just reminds me of shows like Scrubs where a guy makes a sexist comment, a girl points out his sexism, and they spend an entire episode deconstructing what it means to be sexist (and a show like Scrubs really is the ultimate example of how ‘inclusive’ humor ends up fucking over everyone who’s not a man, white, and ‘straight’.)
But that’s just me being a Debbie Downer. A lot of humor I’ve heard – surrounding rapists and rape culture, for example; and stand-up comedy from racial minorities – work in favor of those subjugated. To put in a final word on The Question before I actually talk about how it operates in the movie: your audience has to be aware of the ironic, facetious and satiric nature of the humor for it to be effective, which doesn’t seem to be much of a problem for reviewers. Professionals are supposed to know these things. Even your avid movie-goer or pop culture geek generally understand what they're walking into the cinema to watch. It’s been established that your average movie-goer isn’t going to always be the smartest out of their graduating class. Does it make me any less annoyed and upset when a person in front of me burst into hysterical laughter at the scene where Jenko’s giving Schmidt a fake blowjob in the stacks? No.
If you want to bring one of fandom Tumblr’s famous catchphrase, ‘queerbaiting’, then I don’t have the time. If movie critics don’t got the time for that shit, I don’t either. It’s meta, they say. That makes it all fine, that means anything goes. Not that I didn’t completely scream in glee when Jenko made his speech about using the f*ggot slur (that shit’s just my ‘favorite’ ‘kind' of ‘meta’), but all questions of representation aside (who comes into a Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill movie expecting poignant representation?), the gay subtext got to a point where it choked me with how annoying it was (that point was when Schmidt was monitoring Jenko and Zook as they moaned and grunted in tandem while working out – nobody thought it could actually get any worse than sticking each others’ fingers in the others’ mouth in a toilet stall, but there you go).
It’s not that I don’t ‘get it’, you know, why someone would choose to approach the relationship of two male partners in such a fashion, especially in a parody. It’s just that it’s been done, so many times, and adding a humorous twist to it doesn’t change that it can get offensive. Just because you don’t add a ‘no homo’ scene where those words or any iterations of it are spoken aloud, doesn’t mean it’s not the same thing when the entire premise of the movie, when the promise of the movie, is that of ‘no homo’. Maybe I come off sounding petulant and uneducated about how this ‘meta-homophobia’ works. But then you’re just telling someone who’s offended and triggered by homophobia that their humor level hasn't reached its full potential yet.
Roger Ebert says that the dance between Schmidt and Jenko isn’t homophobic. To him, it feels more like a ‘cultural advance’; post-homophobia homophobia, if you may. He’s doing that thing where people go, “It’s not homophobic. For you to think it’s funny is homophobic, because it’s actually seriously not homophobia.” But that works in so few artistic spaces, under so narrow a circumstance, one of which happens to be that it’s actually a gay love story. And besides which, of course we’re going to think it’s funny, it's a fucking comedy. So what are we laughing at when we’re laughing at Schmidt and Jenko’s ‘relationship issues’? Are we laughing because we think they’re so cute, why don’t they just get together already? The only non-homophobic thing to laugh about, for me, is an interpretation of their friendship as a ‘bromance’, which is probably why so many people cling to the word. They don’t want to laugh and be considered a homophone, they want to laugh and appreciate a solid, strong and intimate friendship between two men.
I’m extricating myself from what this movie has to offer on a meta level, and engaging with what it has to offer to a general audience, as yet another contribution to the long list of commercial movies. Masculinity is rotting and harmful, so is exploring the bond between two men that equal parts reinforces and challenges it a significant contribution? Is yet another ‘bromance’ movie a significant contribution? We’re in a new age, one that’s ostensibly more tolerant. We can get away with this meta-homophobia, a challenge to the existing and exhausted trope of ‘no homo’ movies which can be identified by their typical usage of sexist and homophobic jokes. And in this new age, we ask ourselves, is it really necessary for a movie to contain spoken and explicit homophobia for it to be offensive?
Even Sam Adams, in a review that Ebert linked to, thinks that 22 Jump Street took it too far. The movie is not without its cracks at gender that's separate from satire on action movies/cop dramas. (The prison bitch scene was uncomfortable and unacceptable, and I would never excuse that as ‘absurdist humor’. There are so many things to laugh at in this world, and contributing to an already extensive list of transphobic and disgusting humor is what's absurd here.) Adams writes that the meta drags for so long, it starts to wear off (a criticism I see from many regarding different aspects of the movie – although I’m sure the creators are aware): ”especially once it becomes clear they have no intention of taking it to its logical conclusion”. It’s nice to see Adams all optimistic as to call Jenko and Schmidt being in a romantic relationship a ‘logical conclusion’. But when you’re gay and you’ve been reading queer subtext in everything you consume, it’s not a logical, foregone conclusion at all. You resign yourself to an unresolved love story that's often made the butt of the joke.
As an afterthought, I don't know whether any of the directors, producers, or reviewers associated and mentioned above are gay. To me, it doesn't matter.