The week in film: ’22 Jump Street,’ ‘The Signal’ and more

June 13, 2014

jumpst

After I saw “22 Jump Street,” I noted publicly that, while it was funnier than “21 Jump Street,” so was my root canal. (Although the latter did include laughing gas.) Still, the bar wasn’t particularly high.

So why is this film currently floating atop the Rotten Tomatoes chart with an approval rating in the 80s? Why, for that matter, did the original roll up an 85 on RT in 2012? I blame our public education system, but that’s an argument for another time.

The point is that there is no point: “22 Jump Street” is an at-best-mediocre comedy with a few more laughs than the limp 2012 film (which was based on the first original series to come out of the then-nascent Fox network in 1987). It is even more meta than the first film, which is not a compliment or a criticism, just a statement of fact.

No, on second thought, it is a criticism. Because, like irony and sarcasm, meta is a lazy form of humor, on par with stoned sophomore-year colloquies that devolve into a circular discussion: But if my life is a movie and I know it’s a movie, am I the actor or the director? Or both at the same time? Or maybe it’s a movie of a movie that I don’t even know about.

Except “22 Jump Street,” like so much contemporary comedy, isn’t really about anything to begin with, except its own meta-ness. This includes several moments in which characters talk about how sequels tend to repeat the formula of the original, except with more of everything: action, gross-out humor, budget.

In this iteration, cops Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Tatum Channing) go back undercover as students, this time at a community college. Last time Schmidt got to be (for the first time) the popular one, while Jenko learned what it was like to be a nerdish outcast. This time, they’re back to their lifelong roles (Schmidt: loser; Jenko: winner), while investigating another death attributed to a new synthetic drug.

There’s a strain of homoerotic humor (that toys with the notion of homosexual panic) involving Jenko and new pal Zook (Wyatt Russell, son of Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn), the quarterback with whom he bonds (making Schmidt jealous of this squirmy bromance). The best laughs in the film, however, belong to Jillian Bell, as a harsh-mouthed roommate of the girl Schmidt gets involved with. But a few go to Ice Cube as Capt. Dickson, superior officer to Schmidt and Jenko, when Schmidt’s love life hits a little close to home for Dickson.

Really – the self-awareness in the meta humor is dazzlingly superficial. It’s on a level of: Look, we’re making fun of the fact that we’re making this movie. (Because that’s never been done.) The fact that they further spoof their potential future sequels during the closing credits, unfortunately, doesn’t inoculate them against, well, anything. Nor does it mean there won’t be another in this lame series. There’s too much money still to be made.

signal

Drivel like “Jump Street” will draw a much larger crowd than it deserves. But the more cerebral and exciting “The Signal” ought to be seen by a mass audience, precisely because it is smart and thrilling, without ever really tipping its hand about just what game it’s playing. It’s smaller and will be harder to find, but it’s worth the effort.

It starts with a trio of college kids, on a break from MIT. The two guys are driving their female companion across the country to a fellowship on the West Coast. We gradually learn that Nic (Brenton Thwaites) is in a wheelchair because of a degenerative disease that will eventually kill him; he has convinced girlfriend Haley (Olivia Cooke) to leave him behind for this fellowship because his condition means they have no future.

But he and pal Jonah (Beau Knapp) want to make a detour. A hacker named Nomad has hacked the MIT servers, making it look as though it was the work of Nic and Jonah. They’ve picked up a signal that they believe is leading them to Nomad – but they wind up at an abandoned shack in the desert, after dark. There are a few moments of flashlight-lit exploring but, before you can say “Blair Witch Project,” everything goes black.

When Nic awakens, he’s in what seems to be a sterile facility, secured to a bed, unable to feel his legs. The only people he sees are silent and wear hazmat suits. Eventually, he gets to talk to a doctor (in a hazmat suit, too), played with a wonderfully calm, withholding quality by Laurence Fishburne.

Nic has been exposed to – possibly contaminated by – an EBE (extraterrestrial biological entity – the biological to distinguish it from, say, a meteorite), according to the insanely placid Fishburne. So it’s dangerous for him to leave the sterile environment where he is being held. But Nic, formerly a thoughtful, studious and quiet type, finds himself increasingly agitated – and invigorated – in a physical way that surprises him and then surprises the audience.

Do all of the twists that writer-director William Eubank puts the audience through add up to a coherent narrative conclusion? Perhaps not, but this trip is absolutely worth taking, thanks to the strong, resourceful Thwaites and the quietly frightening insinuations of Fishburne. You won’t see the ending coming – and you’ll be debating what you’ve seen long afterward.

Short takes on a couple of others:

rover

“The Rover”: I was a big fan of David Michod’s “Animal Kingdom,” a crisp, brutal little crime film that introduced American audiences to Jackie Weaver and Ben Mendelsohn. This film, set in a post-apocalyptic Australia, is reminiscent of the first “Mad Max,” but in a less energetic way. Guy Pearce plays Eric, someone with a car and a gun who is traveling the Outback, on a perpetual hunt for food and fuel. When his car is stolen while he makes a stop, he single-mindedly starts chasing the three men who took it, eventually rescuing a gunshot young man (Robert Pattinson), who turns out to have been left behind by the group that stole Eric’s car. So they team up to find that trio. That’s the whole thing, though it obviously lasts longer than this synopsis – lots longer. There’s no small talk in this film, virtually no exposition either. These characters exist in this fly-blown landscape of heat and dust with no backstory and no apparent future, other than the next person one of them shoots. Pearce is an intense presence and Pattinson, who I long ago wrote off as a poser rather than an actor, shows depth I previously was unconvinced he possessed. It has the feel of the fascinatingly aimless late ’60s westerns of Monte Hellman. So you’ll need patience to appreciate it.

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“Ivory Tower”: Student loan debt – now over $1 trillion – is part of our national shame. Which is the takeaway from director Andrew Rossi’s film: that, and the fact that college costs have grown exponentially in the past 30 years, at a rate far greater than the cost of food or health care. Rossi’s film shows some of the reasons that have caused the rapid escalation (including the rankings race that places expensive student-life amenities higher on the priority list than affordable education), even as he examines the anti-intellectual strain, which says that intellectual curiosity shouldn’t be funded by state or federal governments. The film looks at several different levels of the college experience, from Harvard to a community college to online classes, with stops at everything from Deep Springs College (an alternative education experience in Death Valley) to the notion of skipping college in order to hack life skills. It’s an infuriating film, in its description of the way that a college education has become a commodity whose cost threatens to bankrupt generations while promising a future it may not be able to deliver.

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“Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon”: Shep Gordon is one of those rock’n’roll success stories who seems too good to be true. And, in a sense, he is, at least in terms of Mike Myers’ documentary profile of him. A Long Islander who started out to be a social worker and instead wound up as one of the most innovative show-business managers of all time, Gordon is an amiable sort with a list of friends that’s like a show-biz who’s who. Many of them – including Sylvester Stallone, Michael Douglas and Gordon’s first client, Alice Cooper – show up in this film to sing his praises. Still, despite having a career that includes launching the concept of the celebrity chef and becoming an intimate of the Dalai Lama, Gordon himself comes across as what he is – a smart hustler with an eye for the main chance, a guy with great stories who isn’t a great story-teller. He was the right guy in the right place with the daring and freedom to try some new ideas. Gordon himself comes off as kind of a sad figure, given this celebratory film. He’s obviously a nurturer who has found a certain peace with himself, yet you get the sense that all his accomplishments don’t bring the comfort that the kind of stable family life he never achieved might have brought.

hellon

“Hellion”: This film – about troubled youth in a rural community – builds power as it goes, if you have the persistence to stay with it. Aaron Paul plays a recent widower, a construction worker struggling to keep it together with two adolescent sons. The older, Jacob (Josh Wiggins), loves motocross but, left to his own devices by his working father, also has little sense of what bad decisions he is making or the impact they’re having on his younger brother. He and his pals aren’t exactly delinquents, just kids with too much time and energy on their hands and no outlet for the destructively imaginative impulses of youth. So when Jacob’s shenanigans lead Child Protective Services to come calling to place the younger son into the care of his aunt (Juliette Lewis), it causes a crisis for father and older son. Writer-director Kat Candler wants to get at something primal and real – but creating actual drama in the process seems beyond this film’s scope. There are moments of great pain and surprising sweetness here, but it’s a downbeat father-son story that moves too slowly to earn the viewer’s continued forbearance.

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