22 Jump Street Falls Flat

Praise piles up. That this film mocks its own silliness, refers to its generic conventions endlessly, has characters who act as if they’re in a sequel to a film they’ve already been in, has no one to really root for and no thematic density has become the ultimate compliment it seems. Critics seem to love a film that mocks its own limitations, deflates any high-minded expectations, and effortlessly does their job for them: a pan becomes a kudo and everyone’s happy.
22 does it all: which means it does nothing but does it with aplomb, irony and humor. And Jonah Hill gives some depth, or at least a superficial patina to his character while Channing Tatum struggles to fall into character, sputters through the comedy, comes alive when he has to dance spontaneously and, with his budding buddy romance with the jock star of the college football, injects a hip note of fluid sexuality into it all. Why praise this meatball mashup of lame jokes and plotless meanderings? It’s the New Paradigm, perhaps inspired by video games and text messaging, that eschews complexity, character development, narrative tautness, suspense, and thematic thoughtfulness. Things just pile up and we’re asked to be happy with the tottering heap of stuff that makes the pile. And this is all a Good Thing, at least if a number of critics, plus a very healthy box office, are the judge. Maybe in times of environmental decay, endless war, great wealth and plenty–but only for 1 or 2%, and rabid, hateful, fear-mongering politics as the new normal, this is the best escape Hollywood can offer and gratitude abounds.
I’ll just cast a negative vote into the pool and see if it floats. If there were some rich wit to it all, some dimensionality to characters, some density to the plot, and some reward for devoting two hours to this little heap of cliches, I’d lean a bit more toward praise, but for now, I’ll just point the thumb down and await further enlightenment for the devotees.

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Ironic Documentaries

I just had an opportunity to teach a summer course to a large group of professors and filmmakers, mainly from Eastern Europe, at the Central European University in Budapest.  You may heard of CEU as the product of George Soros’s investment in promoting democracy in the former Soviet Union after the Berlin Wall fell. CEU had its origins in that gesture and is a very successful graduate level university focused not on technology and science, as so many are, but on the humanities and social sciences as tools that assist in the understanding of others.

The course was on what the impact of documentaries is, how our belief in an underlying reality caught, in some measure, on film has much to do with the impact of most documentaries ,and how mockumentaries that pretend to have such an underpinning pull us up short. The result can be amusement or anger depending on many factors but what these films have in common is their irony. They don’t say what the mean or entirely mean what they say: they wink. And if we have familiarity with the form, we eventually get the wink, understand the irony, and process its effect.  I wanted to stress how conventions often frame the meaning of a message so that the belief in an underlying reality caught on film stems as much from the use of voice-over, interviews, reference to experts, B-roll editing that illustrates claims as if to prove them, and so on, as it does in any absolute form of reliability.  That being so, it is then fairly easy to mimic these conventions to produce irony.  it is less easy to do so skillfully but over the course of our meetings, we were able to explore the implications in a rich and rewarding way.  There’s more to say and that will probably become an article in the near future.