When Phil Lord and Chris Miller pitched their idea for a 21 Jump Street movie, a film everyone thought was, at best, a moronic moneymaker, they had one bold proposal: "What if the twist is that we try to make it really good?" says Lord. "That's basically a summary of our entire career."
Lord and Miller are the zeitgeist's duo of the moment, a writer-director pair who can take an existing property — Legos, kids' bedtime stories, an '80s cop show starring Richard Grieco — and turn it into a critical and commercial success. In this era of franchises, they're a godsend. Studio executives love them for falling on grenades, the movies that seem destined to be bombs, like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, which had languished in development for three years before Sony tossed it to the two unknowns for their directorial debut. ("It wasn't that risky because it was already a bird with a broken wing," jokes Miller.) And audiences love them because the resulting flicks are shockingly great.
"It's kind of a punk rock prank," laughs Lord. "We've got a niche to ourselves of taking what seems like a bad idea and taking advantage of people's low expectations. It's a lot easier for it to be, 'I was expecting this to be a giant turd and it wasn't!' instead of, 'I thought this would be an Oscar-winner and it's just OK.'"
In the self-referential recap that opens 22 Jump Street, the follow-up to Lord and Miller's miraculous 2012 hit starring Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill as two policeman sent to infiltrate a high school drug ring, deputy chief Hardy (Nick Offerman) starts things off with a stern meta-rebuke. "You got lucky," he grumbles. "Anyone with half a brain thought it would fail spectacularly."
Now, the problem for both the fictional cops and their real-life creators is that we expect them to succeed. Four home runs into Lord and Miller's career (21, Cloudy and its sequel, The Lego Movie), people finally assume that they'll make something awesome. But the only thing more challenging than a comedy about a goofy old TV show is a comedy sequel where they've lost the element of surprise.
The pair brainstormed fresh concepts, then tossed them for being less funny than the original. Then they decided to embrace the staleness.
"We leaned into the conundrum," says Miller. Every peril of a sequel is made literal: 22 Jump Street has the same plot — a campus narcotics deal to bust — and a visibly higher budget. Their new headquarters, right across the street from their old one, have been upgraded with fancy equipment and, inexplicably, a shark tank. Even Tatum and Hill's characters, now posing as college roommates, are getting bored of each other. Explains Miller, "When the sequel became a metaphor for their relationship, that's when we realized there's actually a story worth telling."
It's tempting to analyze the parallels further to wonder what the movie hints about Lord and Miller's own partnership. They met at Dartmouth, shared a bedroom in L.A. ("We had, like, Bert and Ernie beds," admits Miller), and have spent their careers side by side. When writing separately, they confess to hearing each other's voices in their heads. Brainstorming how Tatum and Hill would get weary of their enforced bond, they risked jokes that cut close to the bone.
"We probably should have used it as a tool more to talk about our own relationship," says Miller. "Well, we kind of did: two men who are incredibly avoidant about talking about their own relationship, but for years."
At least re-teaming with Tatum and Hill eased their challenge. In the two years since, Hill's scored his second Oscar nomination ("Maybe three times after this one!" Miller fake-blusters) and proven that he can do drama. Meanwhile, Tatum, the wifebeater-clad pin-up voted People's 2012 Sexiest Man Alive, has proven he's hilarious.
"The first time, Channing was a little nervous. It was his first time doing comedy and he was afraid he was going to put himself out there and fall on his face," says Miller. "This time, he had great faith. He's like an old-school actor where they can all dance and sing and perform and do jokes and serious stuff and cry on command. He's always making everybody who's holding the purse strings nervous that he's going to break a leg and shut down production."
"He can't break legs," insists Lord. "He has an Adamantium skeleton — a Channingmantium skeleton."
Yet 22 Jump Street suggests the franchise has a fatal curse. One month before the first film opened, Whitney Houston died, forcing Sony to cut a gag at the pop singer's expense. This time, there's a recurring Maya Angelou one-liner and no time for a re-edit. If there's a third film — or a 45th, as the closing credits warn — Lord has a new rule: "Don't put any famous African American women in it because you'll be responsible."
For now, having rejected Ghostbusters 3, a grenade no director has dared pick up, Miller's working on something really scary: a wholly original script that Lord wants to produce.
"It would be a nice change of pace to do something where people had good expectations going in," says Miller. "Although it could be dangerous."