Summer comedies can be funny ... and smart

On Film
Channing Tatum, left, and Jonah Hill in “22 Jump Street.”
(Glen Wilson / Columbia Pictures)

When it’s hot, as in summertime hot, it can feel like your brain doesn’t work right. Which may partly explain why the summer is such a peak season for stupid movies, the sorts of loud, outsized, clanging behemoths that people mean when they typically refer negatively to “Hollywood.”

The recent successful opening — the official industry-speak term I believe is “boffo” — for the comedy sequel “22 Jump Street” points to something else. Just as it’s fun sometimes to watch things blow up, it is also fun just to laugh. In its ambitious scale the new “Jump Street” bears comparisons to films such as “The Blues Brothers” or “Ghostbusters.” As with so many of the best comedies, summer fare such as “22 Jump Street” often arrives packing enough self-awareness to make viewers feel as if their brains aren’t on holiday.

Big comedies don’t have to be dumb. Where this self-referencing was once more unusual, in today’s media-saturated world it has become almost expected, or requiring of some further twist.

“22 Jump Street” features elaborate throwaway gags taken from the British comedian Benny Hill or the lobster pot call-back in “Annie Hall,” references that many in the coveted youth demographic might not even be aware of, much let get. The recent “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues” featured a shrewd satire on the sensationalism of contemporary news and media culture by implying it was invented by Will Ferrell’s oblivious character Ron Burgundy. (Also, there was jazz flute on ice.)


As directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller from a screenplay by Michael Bacall, Oren Uziel and Rodney Rothman, the “Jump Street” sequel even preempts criticism of itself. In “21 Jump Street” there were numerous jokes based on the idea of remaking a relatively unknown television show, and this time out there is much made of the diminishing returns of doing something again. So if one happens to find “22 Jump Street” slightly less satisfying, that is in essence acknowledged by the film with a smile, a wink and a shrug. They know it, we know it, and it becomes the filmmaking equivalent of the catchall phrase “it is what it is.”

The new “Jump Street” also set off a brief flurry of online conversation regarding its running series of jokes on the gay/homosocial subtext that typically runs through male buddy cop movies, most notably in the “Lethal Weapon” or “Bad Boys” films. Eventually the police partners played by Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill, undercover this time as college students, find themselves in a therapy session as if they are romantic partners and all of their comments and complaints about each other as friends and co-workers seem to fit the dynamic of a romantic discussion just fine.

Just as the action is outsized and the film is in general writ large, it flirts with too much-ness here too. The main criticism was that the jokes went too far in number, from signaling awareness to something else, as if in the aggregate the series of gags moves from pointing out a problem to extending it. Regardless, it is useful that the movie went there, leaving the argument against it as mostly a matter of degrees.

The unconscious and hard-to-control aspect of our laughter as audiences can make it difficult to pick apart comedies. (When was the last time you floundered while trying to explain a joke after the fact?) Yet, stepping back, that essential uncertainty can also be instructive as to why we are laughing at the things we do, shedding light, under cover of comedy, at our deep-seated attitudes.


It’s that sort of larger awareness of the movie itself, the big picture and purpose of what it might really be about, which the series of “Hangover” pictures largely lacked, making the films fun at times but not much else. (Which also explains the rapidly diminishing returns of the sequels.) The recent film “Neighbors,” with Seth Rogen, Zac Efron and Rose Byrne, revealed itself as a window onto changing notions of what maturity means, as well as the balance of power, responsibility and trust in relationships. And perhaps one of the best relatively recent examples of the secretly smart summer comedy was the quietly subversive “Bridesmaids,” which Hollywood has largely not figured out what or how to learn from.

These big, commercial comedies have unexpectedly become a strong barometer of cultural concerns, as if audiences need the relief of laughing at the things that worry them in their everyday lives. Looking back a few years, there may be no better representation, however broad, of the cultural dominance of a certain stubborn Americana-based mind-set that took root in the early-'00s than the stock-car comedy “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.”

As it happens, Jerry Lewis’ masterful “The Nutty Professor” has just been released in a beautiful Blu-ray edition. Lewis’ bold run of films in the early 1960s as director, star, co-writer and producer in many ways sets the stage for the kind of hyper-awareness of these contemporary comedies.

In the film Lewis plays a nerdy teacher who discovers a formula that turns him Jekyll and Hyde-style into a suave sophisticate, something akin to early Pete Campbell morphing into Don Draper on “Mad Men.” Over the years, many would have that the cool-cat Buddy Love character was a jab at Lewis’ former partner, Dean Martin, or even Dean’s buddy Frank Sinatra. It could also be said that the character is in fact Lewis’ distorted view of himself, as the character’s air of self-seriousness has become a hallmark off Lewis’ off-screen persona. Lewis wouldn’t again reveal on-screen his doubts about himself until his dramatic performance in Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy.”

In the same way, Jonah Hill has recently made a running gag of whether he has become full of himself now that he is a two-time Academy Award nominee. That he had become insufferable was a throughline of his character in last summer’s inside-out “This Is the End,” in which an entire coterie of Young Hollywood played themselves facing an apocalypse, and early in “22 Jump Street” Hill insists on absolute silence from his partner so that he can get into character before an undercover operation.

At the end of Lewis’ “The Patsy,” his follow-up to “The Nutty Professor,” the lovable schnook played by Lewis seems to fall off a balcony. The performer pops up, revealing the soundstage he is on while directly addressing the audience. He smashes the fiction of the story and essentially ends his movie by throwing it aside.

The moment could be seen as an antecedent to the end credits of “22 Jump Street,” which have been widely hailed as the funniest and most inventive part of the film. As their mission as college students concludes, Hill and Tatum are told they will next go undercover to medical school, which sets off a series of further schools — such as beauty, dancing, firefighting, flight training — they will attend in a further series of sequels. The seemingly endless series of fake film ideas pulls the rug out from under the movie that just played while also throwing a preemptive pie in the face of whatever might come next.

These rowdy, reflexive comedies are of course not the only way to lighten the mood, as the revamped rom-com of “Obvious Child” also points toward a gentler style of more apparent worldliness. Summer moviegoing may be about escapism and simply beating the heat in air-conditioned comfort, but unlike most of their action movie cousins, summer comedies don’t seem by default to ask audiences to switch off their brains.


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