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By Mark Bell | June 17, 2014

Got a minute for a metaphor? Just for fun, let’s think of movie comedy as a universe and consider the ways it has expanded since 2007. Something really quite remarkable has happened in front of our eyes.

That was the year of the Big Bang. Once synonymous with Hollywood humor, Jim Carrey’s star had gone white dwarf. He’d sunk to taking nut jobs like The Number 23. Solo schtick had given way to an ensemble-based model exemplified by Will Ferrell, who’d made Old School (2003), Anchorman (2004) and Talladega Nights (2006).

In 2007, however, Ferrell’s world was in turn absorbed by the larger galactic laugh mass of Judd Apatow. That year he altered the comic space-time continuum with Knocked Up and Superbad. Suddenly the movie world was not only funnier, raunchier and less predictable, but brightened by a constellation of shining talents around whom funny business henceforth would revolve:

Newly formed stars like Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Michael Cera, Emma Stone, Danny McBride, Jason Segel, Steve Carell, Jane Lynch, Kristen Wiig, Craig Robinson, Mindy Kaling and Paul Rudd. The form had evolved from a one person show to a gang activity. Consider last year’s This Is the End: most of those people appeared in that one film.

That’s the way of comedies today. Many of those people also appear in 22 Jump Street, the year’s second gonzo gutbuster from Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (The Lego Movie), who aren’t so much part of Apatow’s world as a parallel universe.

Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum reprise their roles as undercover agents Schmidt (Hill) and Jenko (Tatum). Reprise is the operative word. The joke before was that brass were rebooting an old program because they’d run out of new ideas. Matters here get decidedly more meta. The joke everybody’s in on is this is that most maligned of traditions-a sequel. “Do the same thing as last time,” supervisor Nick Offerman winkingly orders “and everyone will be happy.”

So it’s back to school. College this time, but again in search of a mysterious dealer and again looking laughably old. Writers Michael Bacall, Oren Uziel and Hill do the impossible, simultaneously repeating and topping themselves with gags decrying the form’s conventions while deftly defying them.

Schmidt and Jenko “do the same thing” but somehow do it funnier. The bits-Hill’s surreal poetry slam, for example-are genius and just keep coming. A new vein of loopy word play is tapped as Tatum utters one malapropian masterpiece after another (He means “I thought we had carte blanche but says “I thought we had Cate Blanchett.”). And a new star is born.

Jillian Bell slays as a student who calls Schmidt on his crow’s-feet. “I’m 19,” he insists. “Nineteen minutes late to pinochle,” she deadpans. “Tell me about the war. Any war.” If this were Bridesmaids, she’d be Melissa McCarthy. Totally bonkers. Totally breakout. She steals act three.

I could go on about what a laugh-a-minute rabbit hole of self-referential brilliance this is. Blink and you miss Patton Oswalt as a professor proving he can say anything because he has tenure. Or Rob Riggle with the non plus ultra of prison jokes. But the right thing is to let you discover its deceptively dumb wonders for yourself.

The last thing I’ll say is stay for the closing credit sequence. The movie may be over but some of the best, most bitingly insightful yucks are yet to come. 22 Jump Street takes Hollywood comedy to a whole new place-a neat trick for a picture whose business plan is revisiting the past-and, yes, with the second-biggest opening ever for an R-rated comedy, everyone is happy indeed.

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