Comedies, generally speaking, are at their best when they're at their lightest and most invisible; and 22 Jump Street is always and persistently a very effortful movie. Which isn't enough to make it bad, or even a disappointing follow-up to 2012's 21 Jump Street, a film whose sequel could almost certainly not ever improve in it. The sense of surprise that came along with the first movie - that cast, and that concept, engendering almost nothing at all but a sharp sense of doubt - was certainly never going to come back, and 22 Jump Street openly, explicitly, and repeatedly acknowledges the fact that sequels are virtually never as much fun as the original, in an attempt to inoculate itself against exactly that criticism.

This strategy works about as well as it possibly can, which still isn't great. "Boy, isn't it clever to point out how stupid things are by doing the exact stupid same stupid thing ourselves?" is an argument that I am never sympathetic to, though 22 Jump Street gets away it better than something like Scream by selecting a far broader topic that's easier to hit without as much specificity and nuance required. Still, the fourth or fifth repetition of the "boy, when you try to do things again the exact same way as you did them before, it's lazy and stupid and pointless" gag, it's gone from being funny to being more a vaguely mirthful sort of I-see-what-you're-doing thing, maybe enough to smile at but not to laugh at. And there are, charitably, many more than four or five repetitions of that gag.

Meta-humor is, in general, the film's weakness; certainly, it's the part where the screenplay (with double the number of credited writers from the first, about as bad a sign as they come) shows its work most obviously, and to least effect. Most of the time, it feels like we're being elbowed in the ribs - "do you get it? Because the character is being played by Ice Cube, and they say his office looks like a cube of ice" - although the meta-jokes are generally funny, and that somewhat compensates for it, and there are some places where it actually goes subtle: there's a Benny Hill joke that by virtue of remaining totally un-stressed (except for some floridly Yackety Saxian music flaring up in Mark Mothersbaugh's score, and even that plays almost subtly in context) is actually impressive despite feeling like it really should be intolerably labored.

At any rate, it is a film that is very desperate for us to acknowledge that it's smart, and we're in on the joke with it, and aren't we all some very sophisticated motherfuckers. And that's not a great thing for comedy. Still, it leaves a good 60% or 70% of the movie that works on a simpler, more direct, and infinitely more successful level, which is that Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum have awe-inspiring chemistry with each other, and that Tatum, in particular, is a magnificent comic actor with a genius for timing (the cutting in this film tends to let his deliveries breath rather than reshapes them for maximum punchline impact, which is pretty dam impressive all by itself; not consistently and in one case the trailers let a joke play out in one take that the movie messes up by putting it in a cutaway, but the point remains), which makes it vexing and, honestly, a little confounding that he hasn't had a non-cameo role in any comedy since 21 Jump Street itself, and has none in the pipeline.

With the meta-jokes all straining a bit too hard to be "clever" to actually succeed at being "funny", and the social commentary largely scrapped (the last movie was obsessed with how we age out of high school social codes, while the new movie has nothing much to say on college culture beyond some generic notions about dorm life), that leaves 22 Jump Street to function mostly on the level of a relationship comedy; we care about how Hill's Office Schmidt and Tatum's Officer Jenko interact with each other, and so that is the basis of most of the plot and conflict and the focus of the bulk of the scenes. There's a hefty dose of "these straight guys are acting exactly like a romantic couple!" jokes that never wear out their welcome mostly due to the film's resolute avoidance of gay panic jokes,*but anyway, the gag isn't ever really that they're "playing gay" (and the one scene where they are is one of the film's flattest). I'm not even sure that it's a gag: it's a comedy built around a moment of crisis in a relationship. Playing around with the vocabulary of cinematic romantic comedies - including an exquisitely random lift of a pair of scenes from Annie Hall, of all target audience-unfriendly films - is part of the fun the film's general game of making jokes out of its own existence, but it's not really mocking the characters, so much as mocking the tropes. Because mocking tropes is pretty much the oxygen that 22 Jump Street breathes.

So anyway, Schmidt and Jenko are once again undercover at an educational institution to ferret out drugs, failing spectacularly to fit in, and meeting new people that threaten their partnership and friendship, in this case pretty art nerd Maya (Amber Stevens) and joyfully dim football star Zook (Wyatt Russell), and the film again balances a knowing subversion of the formula of '80s action comedies with living up to all the rules of that same genre. Once again, the directing team of Phil Lord & Christopher Miller is key to making all of this click, as they mix and match everything from genre deconstruction to classic farce to dick jokes to the good old-fashioned knowledge that the word "fuck" can be funny all by itself if said in the right context and with the right spin on the delivery. Though Lord & Miller, in their impressive career of making brilliantly tight comedies from uncertain or outright bad concepts, have never had quite this low a success rate on a gag-by-gag basis (including a shocking misuse of a mid-film cameo that should have been one of the film's outright highlights). One suspects that they were a little too busy when The Lego Movie was being put to bed to attend to the production of this film quite as much as they had to: scenes take a while to find their footing, jokes are repeated a little too often, and the scenes that explicitly advance the plot aren't nearly as funny as they were in the last movie.

All things considered, though, it's a perfectly satisfying little noodle of a comedy, betting everything on Hill and Tatum being delightful to watch in their little platonic romcom and winning that bet. It's not nearly the instant comedy classic that the last film was, with only a couple of truly inspired scenes (one of which, fortunately, is at the very end), and it's never fun to see a director (directors) one admires make their worst film yet, even for such a high-level version of "worst". But it gets the job done, and if we must have sequels to every damn thing that comes out, we can at least have sequels that understand enough about why we might want to watch them.