As the script itself is only too happy to acknowledge, Phil Lord and Chris Miller's 22 Jump Street takes the goodwill generated by the surprise success of its predecessor, a reboot of the featherweight, late-1980s cop drama, and reinvests it in a new enterprise designed to achieve nothing more than an encore—not a narrative continuation or expansion, but a doubling-down, using nearly twice the original's budget in the hopes of an even more spectacular victory. As promised—nay, foretold—by dialogue heard at the end of 21 Jump Street, the film's two "sonsabitches," hero cops Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum), are "goin' to college," on a mission that's virtually identical to the last one: There's a popular but potentially lethal party drug on campus, and it's up to Schmidt and Jenko, once again in the words of Ice Cube's Captain Dickson, to "infiltrate the dealehs, find the supplieh."
As funny and batshit insane as the movie often is, the fact that 22 Jump Street knows it's a tiresome sequel doesn't save it from being a tiresome sequel, even as Lord and Miller struggle to conceal the bitter pill of convention in the sweet tapioca pudding of wall-to-wall jokes. Since, like its predecessor, 22 Jump Street is an action comedy and a buddy comedy, devoted partners Jenko and Schmidt must endure several threats of imminent divorce, each more serious than the last. Thus, once the breach is repaired, their victory over the bad guys will be that much sweeter. It's a transparent bid for suspense that recurs in what feels like over a half-dozen different places in 22 Jump Street's narrative. Miller and Lord may try to dress these scenes up with manic invention and a dash of improvisation, and—if the Internet is to be believed—their work on The LEGO Movie kept them from making the kinds of script revisions that may have resulted from their undivided attention, but these scenes, and others of its kind, like the laughable romance between Schmidt and hot left-brain girl Maya (Amber Stevens), stop the movie dead in its tracks.
Lord and Miller are the type of creative brain trust about whom one says, "They should be given the whole train set, just to see what they can do if they really cut loose." The trouble with that notion is, given the freewheeling style and spirit they've demonstrated with all of their features to date, culminating with The LEGO Movie earlier this year, the failure to cut loose is the last thing troubling the dynamic directing duo. If sheer inventiveness was everything in making movies, Lord and Miller would rank alongside the greatest filmmakers who ever looked through a viewfinder. And, to be fair, at least two set pieces in 22 Jump Street are in the running for the top scenes of the year so far: the Duck Amuck-inspired drug trip, which traps Jenko and Schmidt in isolated, graphic representations of their inner natures, and ends with Schmidt, like Daffy Duck, attempting to tear down the constricting frame, as well as a centerpiece with Ice Cube that just about pays for every dumb Are We There Yet? comedy on his resumé.
Lord and Miller's priorities, however, are clarified by what they don't seem to care about, as much as it's revealed in their undeniable knack for just-faster-than-perception comic absurdity. Most of the lighting and blocking in the movie seems careless, the editing serving no other purpose than to punch up every non sequitur, as if the fundamentals of craft were nothing more than a buzzkill. This is the kind of rush job that seems to occur when a release date overwhelms a production team, and there's too much money, not enough time, and the powers that be just want to get the damn thing out the door. There are plenty of laughs, but a kind of despair hangs over the whole affair, so terribly concerned with getting a lock on the present moment of comedy, media, and what's trending on Twitter, that it already feels like a time capsule.
It's a delusion to think of Lord and Miller as anything other than oil, rather than sand, in the gears of conglomerated entertainment production in the era of content-on-demand. If the script (credited to three writers) jokes about Hollywood straitjacketing, it's important to remember that Hollywood can take a joke, and by "take" I mean "appropriate and rebrand." After all, Hollywood will do anything it thinks will make a bunch of money—they'll even throw it away—except change its basic nature. 22 Jump Street is a self-aware Hollywood product. But for a film trying so hard to capture "the moment," and which is so precise in its awareness of the creative bankruptcy of the Hollywood franchise as it stands in 2014, its satire of the institution of the American university is toothless. The script is content to pretend that nothing's changed since Bing Crosby went to college as a middle-aged millionaire in High Times, except that kids are texting, doing party drugs, and that spring break is wild and crazy. Captain Hardy (Nick Offerman) may nearly break the fourth wall and apologize to the audience for the sequel concept's threadbare originality, but, apart from a halfhearted, throwaway line of dialogue about the dismal prospects awaiting liberal arts majors, there's not much about 22 Jump Street that connects it with the ripe, juicy topic that's right there for the eviscerating: the pathetic state of the university experience in 2014.