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Party Like the 1980s with “21 Jump Street”

March 19, 2012

By John C.

Among the funniest lines of dialogue in the hilariously raunchy comedy 21 Jump Street comes when undercover cop Jenko (Channing Tatum) says of the always changing high school dynamic, “f**k you, Glee.”  This is not only one of the truest quotes from the film because it perfectly describes how I have recently started to feel about the popular musical TV show, but because it openly mocks the unbelievability with which our popular culture has recently depicted high school.

The 1980s gave us some of the greatest and most believable depictions of teenaged life that we have ever gotten, and 21 Jump Street is a loving and wickedly funny tribute to the decade that knew teen films so well.  Perhaps this is because the film is loosely based on the weekly TV series that ran from 1987 to 1991, and launched the career of Johnny Depp.  But where the original 21 Jump Street took itself more seriously, this big screen homage works because it doesn’t try to merely recreate the show.

Jenko and Schmidt (Jonah Hill) are a couple of underachieving cops who are disappointed with the lack of “car chases and explosions” on the job, spending their days riding bicycles through the park.  But then they are sent back to high school as part of a revival program from the 1980s, so that they can take down a dangerous drug ring that is supplying synthetic drugs to the students.  They take it as an opportunity to relive their own adolescence by partying with the teenagers, but the problem is that what was once cool is no longer considered okay.  Jenko advises Schmidt to “one strap” his backpack, but now everyone uses both straps.  Jocks are no longer the coolest ones around and teens these days value eccentricity and actually care about important things like the environment.

There was so much popular culture that literally defined the 1980s, that it is very easy to keep going back to the music and movies of that decade and essentially recreate the era, regardless of whether or not you actually lived through it.  That’s why new generations are still discovering the great John Hughes teen films like Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.  The scene where John Cusack holds a boombox over his head in Cameron Crowe’s excellent Say Anything still gets referenced both verbally and visually.  Perhaps this is why Hollywood has such an obsession with remaking some of the most beloved films from this period in time, ranging in quality from the surprisingly effective modern reboot of Footloose to the poorly misjudged remake of The Karate Kid.

But 21 Jump Street works because it pays homage to the original show, without trying to merely recreate it.  Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill can’t really pass for teenagers, and the movie sees the irony in this and wisely plays the situation for laughs.  This is a smart social satire of how things are constantly changing over the years, especially at high school, and an open mockery of the pop culture staples of this day and age that no longer get it right.  A show like Glee often tries too hard to be about something, but falls into the trap of perpetuating stereotypes and often offers easy answers for serious situations.  The best depictions of teenaged life succeed when they capture a feeling, and 21 Jump Street does double duty in the way it depicts the moment when the previous generation collides with the current one.

The most surprising thing about a mainstream comedy like 21 Jump Street is that it does succeed on multiple levels, working both as 1980s nostalgia for a new generation and a sharp satire of our current pop culture.  At the same time, the film also delivers a lot of big laughs alongside several breakout action sequences.  In this day and age, some comedies would just settle for average and this one has defied expectations to become one of the best reviewed movies of the year, so far.  So “f**k you, Glee” and see 21 Jump Street with a big group of friends, the way movies like this are meant to be experienced.

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