• Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum in 22 Jump Street

I recently wrote a favorable review of 22 Jump Street—more favorable, in fact, than my review of 21 Jump Street, which came out just two years ago. I’m not sure if the new film is that much better than its predecessor or if I came to it with a better of idea of what its directors, Christopher Miller and Phil Lord, and stars, Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill, were up to. Though I enjoyed Tatum in his three collaborations with Steven Soderbergh, I hadn’t given much thought until recently to the popularity of Hill or Miller and Lord. I found all three to have a knack for comedy, though I didn’t necessarily find their work funny—which isn’t a knock on any of them, more a reflection of my own sense of humor, or lack thereof.

My feelings on all three started changing around the beginning of the year, when I checked out Miller and Lord’s The Lego Movie in theaters and revisited on DVD Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, for which Hill was nominated for an Academy Award. One of the things I admire about Scorsese’s film is how it repurposes Hill’s comic screen persona—a socially graceless loudmouth prone to fits of rage—to surprising, sinister effect. Hill’s talent is being able to say the most offensive thing that pops into his head while making it clear he doesn’t believe at all what he’s saying. That talent is on full display in 22 Jump Street, namely in a comic set piece where he improvises, terribly, at poetry slam. In Wolf, Hill plays a character who not only says the most horrible ideas that come into his head, but acts on them. Scorsese has him deliver (and in many cases, improvise) his dialogue in the same fashion as he did in Superbad. Hilarious and appalling, he’s like one of those laughing demons you see in medieval paintings of hell. Hill’s performance in that film, no less than Leonardo DiCaprio’s, illustrates how amoral people can fascinate and even attract us.

The Lego Movie is comparable to Wolf in that its critique of commercial excess often resembles the thing it critiques. It’s also comparable to the Jump Street movies in its obvious debt to animated cartoons. The action comes at you at Roadrunner speed, and the humor is self-referential, self-mocking, and heavy on the slapstick. Miller and Lord give the impression that they’re aware of their own hypocrisy, since they present their bombastic action scenes (as well as the narrative cliches of buddy-cop movies) as patently ridiculous. By the same token, Hill and Tatum are ingratiating in these movies because they appear so willing to lampoon the familiarity of their screen personas—effectively, to turn themselves into cartoons. (The Jump movies are also comparable to the cycle of Looney Tunes that cast Porky Pig and Daffy Duck as long-suffering pals.) Writing all of this, I realize that much I’m saying, both positive and negative, echoes the initial critical reactions to Frank Tashlin’s The Girl Can’t Help It (1956) and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957), both of which have come to be recognized among the greatest Hollywood comedies of their era. (On a related note, one could say that The Wolf of Wall Street subverts Hill’s screen persona much like Scorsese’s The King of Comedy subverted that of Jerry Lewis, who made some of his best movies with Tashlin.) Who knows what the future holds for 22 Jump Street?