Soaring past low expectations

Soaring past low expectations

Giant, pallid and fleshy, the faces of Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum are plastered all over Los Angeles.

On billboards, buildings and buses, their mirrored-sunglasses-wearing selves seem to be promoting their new movie, 22 Jump Street, everywhere.

Each time the film’s directors, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, see the ads, their reaction is the same: They can’t get their heads around the fact that the signs are even there.

“It’s like the world broke,” Lord said, as a Hill-Tatum-adorned bus roared past him. “Our whole career seems like an extended dare,” Miller chimed in. With 22 Jump Street, Lord and Miller are poised to cement their status as the go-to Hollywood duo for making good movies out of thankless ideas that seem doomed to fail.

Discerning parents still speak glowingly about the pair’s debut feature, the 2009 film Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs.

And the predecessor of 22 Jump Street, 21 Jump Street, based on the ‘80s TV show, roundly surprised critics for having a heart while being clever.

This year, adulatory chatter around The Lego Movie, which the pair wrote and directed, threatened to drown out pre-Oscar buzz.

“They like to take things that people have low expectations for,” said Hill, who has story credits and starred in both Jump Street films, the first of which, he said, “should have been a horrible movie.”

“They make it palatable for the youngest dumbest person there and the smartest oldest person there,” Hill continued. “That is their crazy genius.” Despite an enviable track record, each success seems to catch Lord and Miller off guard. “Shocking, just shocking,” Lord said. Miller added: “We’re so anxious about things and neurotic that it’s very rare we think things are going to be great. We’re just worried that it’s not good enough all the time.”

Lord and Miller’s creative pairing came by happenstance. Now both 38, they met in the mid-’90s at Dartmouth, where they were casually acquainted until one fateful day Miller accidentally set fire to Lord’s girlfriend’s hair.

A fast friendship ensued. After graduation, in preparation for an interview with Walt Disney’s television animation arm, Miller sent along a few examples of his work with Lord, and the studio ended up interviewing the pair.

After a few years working on Saturday-morning cartoons, they landed their own animated sitcom in the early aughts, Clone High, wherein teenage genetic clones of historical figures attend the same high school.

Sitcom writing followed, culminating in a solid run with How I Met Your Mother. Then they were tapped write a screenplay for the 1978 children’s book Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, and ended up directing it, too.

Taking the lessons of storytelling with them, Lord and Miller then made a pitch to direct 21 Jump Street, suggesting a stronger relationship arc between the two lead characters.

“One of the principles was it would be so funny to make this movie actually good,” Lord said.

At the heart of both Jump Street films is the friendship, replete with vulnerabilities and jealousies, and liberally irrigated with inanity and antics, between the characters played by Hill and Tatum, male friendship being something Lord and Miller know a thing or two about.

Yet with their success comes the danger of being condemned to endless sequels.

They produced Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2 before working on 22 Jump Street.

They are also producing a Ninjago film, based on a Lego toy line and TV series — true to form, they have opted to take it really seriously and model it after a Kurosawa film — and are producing a second Lego movie. “Sequels are hard,” Miller said.

“You need to come up with a reason to make a movie, separate from the commercial side.”

Come what may, they said, they are determined to keep making films in which the expectations are low, a goal that has become ever more unattainable now that expectations for them are high.

“That’s sort of what we go for with all our movies,” Miller said. “They seem like bad ideas and then you’re relieved. Low expectations is the key to happiness in life.” “That might be my epitaph,” Lord said. “'It wasn’t as bad as I thought. Here lies Phil Lord.'”

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