A bleak, reedy instrumental. A patently fake brick wall. Yellow paint hissing from an aerosol can: 21 Jump Street.
The visual slams us back to the aesthetically familiar 1980s – or to a received sense of this time – then forward to this Friday, when the reboot (starring Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum) opens in theatres.
Jump Street was an offbeat-yet-gritty cop show about youthful officers going undercover at a local high school. The show dealt with serious issues, including teen suicide, AIDS, drugs and murder.
The film flips all of this on its head: It is a comedy, straight up. What is serious is that it’s yet another film contending with the persistent lovesickness that is eighties nostalgia.
Like 1970s nostalgia for the 1950s, via American Graffiti, Grease and Happy Days, the 1980s have been reduced to a series of visual signifiers: Madonna bustiers, Flock of Seagulls hair-falls, MJ red leather, big hair, metal hair, hair shaved into fades.
When the 1980s, or shows from that era ( Charlie’s Angels, Beverly Hills 90210) are reframed, they are teased out a bit, but modernized, not changed.
Why the jokey revamp of a serious program? The film looks genuinely funny, but the original show – filmed in Vancouver and starring the soon-to-be major heartthrobs Johnny Depp and Richard Grieco – was not witless. The two leads bantered and interacted well.
The comedic makeover has everything to do with 21 Jump Street’s 80s-specific earnestness, which now feels so recherché. Not only did it grapple with difficult, even shocking material (incest, teen prostitution) it did so with compassion and gravity. Most episodes ended with a PSA starring one of the cast members, unimaginable in this day and age.
The 80s are prime for nostalgia because of the seeming quirkiness and bizarre passions of the decade. Passion that is, raw, aching with sincerity. Think of the oeuvre of John Hughes: It is, in capsule form, a series of young people crying openly because they are in pain, and because they feel helpless loathing for the world they live in.
“When you grow up, your heart dies,” a wretched Allie Sheedy (as Allison) says in 1985’s The Breakfast Club.
“Who cares?” asks the not-so-heartless, abused John Bender.
“I do,” she says, with almost repulsive candour. Repulsive because it is so daringly authentic and inauthentic at the same time: It is beautiful pop, the essence of punk distilled into bright, gorgeous candy.
21 Jump Street is similar. Johnny Depp is too big for his little part: His beauty and talent spell out the career he will soon have, and when his already-iconic face turns to contemplating a teen’s death – “What place did this kid get himself into … where he thought that suicide made sense?” – it is almost unbearable. The earnestness, the anguish, those eyes.
Highly stylized torment (like violence, in the novels of Bret Easton Ellis) defines this decade’s pop art. By the time the century turned, the art of high-gloss candour (think of Depp mentor John Waters’s serious absurdities from this era, such as Hairspray) had evaporated.
“Oops there goes gravity!” Eminem sings in 2002, ushering in a new era of male and female roughnecks, who don’t weep during detention, and are more likely to blast at a TV PSA. Emotional teen dramedies persisted, but their problems moved uptown: The “richies,” as they’re are known in Hughes-land, prevailed in shows like Beverly Hills 90210 and, much later, The O.C. and Gossip Girl.
Jonah Hill, to be fair, is part of the Judd Apatow invasion; part of a new comic wave of sensitive softies, but even these softies have hardcore moments. Watch him getting stabbed at a party in the film trailer, then laughing it off.
Sadcore – what one may call a film like 21 Jump Street – is gently parodic and tough at the same time, reflecting the paradox that is eighties nostalgia, a nostalgia for a time that never existed as it appears on film and TV.
The film, it seems, cannot decide whether it longs for or derides an era when baring yourself and then simply collapsing with fear and weariness (like poor Demi Moore in St. Elmo’s Fire) was an authentic, desirable act.
As Officer Tom Hanson, Johnny Depp tells his boss that, until he finds out who murdered a hapless teen, “I kinda feel like I helped kill him.”
Just a few years later, River Phoenix would be dancing his death throes outside of Depp’s drug-riddled Viper Room: How can we not, all of us, kinda miss the blunt, foolish sweetness of the eighties we all created before our hearts died.