“21 & Over”is an offensive, juvenile movie filled with stereotypical humor at every turn, inappropriate behavior carried out by despicable
and morally-shallow characters, and a plot jammed with too many clichés and predictable “twists” to call out in one review.
So why did I enjoy it so much?
That’s right, because even though I’m right at the cusp of standing on my front porch, clutching a cup of decaf Folgers, and shaking my fist – with a “get-off-my-lawn” mentality – at trespassing, teenage hooligans, I managed to have one, important revelation as I watched this raunchy love-letter to binge drinking, alcohol poisoning, and pub crawls… goddamn, it was fun to be young.
That’s the one, generic word that can be used to describe a movie like “21 & Over” – fun.
The three main characters in the movie, who conveniently embody every personality-type that a clique of good friends possesses, are Miller, Casey and Jeff Chang. Miller (played by Miles Teller) represents the drug-sampling, quick-with-a-quip slacker of the crew, while Casey (played by Skylar Austin) is the straight-arrow, all-business, “I got my shit together,” Stanford attendee. Both friends – who haven’t seen each other in quite a while and barely kept in touch – decide to meet up at an unnamed school (although, it was filmed at University of Washington and has a buffalo for a mascot) to visit their high school buddy Jeff Chang (played by Justin Chon) to celebrate his 21st birthday.
Not exactly a “Raiders of the Lost Ark” type of quest, in terms of scale and importance, but it’ll do.
On a side note: I love the fact that, for the entire film, they refer to the guy as Jeff Chang. Never Jeff or Chang – only Jeff Chang. This reminds me of my youth, just for the simple fact that there was one guy in my group of friends (that I will not name here) that we always used both his first and last name when addressing. In fact I’m willing to bet that anybody reading this had a friend that was treated the same way. Even my sister’s clique had a girl that this was done to. It’s universal and was a nice touch.
The big dilemma here is that Jeff Chang doesn’t know that they are coming and his ultra-conservative and overbearing father Dr. Chang (played by Francois Chau – who not-so-coincidentally played the Dharma Initiative version of a Dr. Chang in TV’s “Lost,” - he even had a so-called disappointment of a son Miles on that show, too!) has his own plans for his son’s birthday – and they don’t involve keg stands and beer pong.
See, in the movie’s biggest stereotype (you know, the one that says all Asian fathers want their sons to be doctors), Dr. Chang has an important interview set up for his son’s med school future and it’s in the wee hours of the morning. After Jeff Chang’s two buddies arrive, the father shoots all three of them some scary, disapproving looks and warns them of the dire consequences if his son happens to miss that interview.
So that’s it, right? There’s no possible way that Jeff Chang’s two best friends would let him risk his predetermined future for a couple of shots, right?
This is where the slacker friend Miller works his magic and after a rah-rah, “let’s get messed up” speech, they all decide to just have a couple of drinks, celebrate this momentous occasion (I remember, well, kind-of remember my 21st birthday), and get Jeff Chang home at a reasonable hour so he can ace his interview.
So that’s it, right? There’s no possible way that Jeff Chang’s two best friends would let him get so messed up that he would risk his med school plans and life-long goals of pleasing his hard-to-please father, right?
Hey, the movie would’ve been called “Responsible Friends Come for a Visit” if that was the case.
I won’t give up too much of the well-balanced, thought-provoking and deeply-layered story by screenwriting (and directing – for the first time, mind you) duo of Jon Lucas and Scott Moore. I mean, these dudes wrote “The Hangover,” so you know you’re not getting “Argo” or anything like that. Oh, by the way, I was being sarcastic with all the “thought-provoking” stuff earlier in the paragraph – just to be clear.
To be fair, however, there was some underlying subtext involving
how hard it is to preserve your high school friendships during and after college, the immense pressure that kids endure these days – on a cultural, social, and parental level, and the perils of pissing off an all-Latino, female sorority house.
Okay, well maybe not that last one, but that is an example of what brand of humor courses through the liquor-filled veins of this film. In fact, to use the word “juvenile” to describe the kind of humor in this film, would severely offend young children – and you do not want to upset your nursery school readers, no sir.
To give you an example of this, I’ll consult my pocket-sized, grey-colored, bungee-bound notebook that I use to continually jot down notes during a film when I watch it. On the first page – and this was during the opening five-minutes of the film when Miller is taking a cab to pick up Casey at the bus station – I wrote the following notes: “Opens a beer in the cab.. edgy… yay,” “First Jewish joke – 3 minutes in,” “long, drawn-out sequence involving sex with Casey’s teenage sister – Miller is a smarmy douche [who's] wearing a visor – a visor!,” “First Asian joke – five minutes in,” and “Hey, that’s that doctor from “Lost.” In case it isn’t obvious, we’re not dealing with cutting-edge cinema here.
Actually, you should think of the film as “Weekend at Bernies” meets “PCU” meets “Can’t Hardly Wait,” with Jeff Chang as this generation’s half-dead Bernie, surrounded by a “PCU”-style assortment of college landmarks and students, while being dragged from party-to-”Can’t Hardly Wait”-esque party.
Real quick, interesting side note: According to the filmmakers, a series of additional scenes were shot in China, after filming had wrapped, in order to create a separate, completely different plot line that will be used in the version of the film that is to be shown in China. Instead of the original plot line, you know the one where Jeff Chang gets inebriated and obliterated in order to blow off steam and “live life” before giving into the goals that his father has planned for him, the Chinese version of the film exposes “the perils of a hedonistic [Western society] and the importance of embracing one’s roots.” In this version, the character of Jeff Chang starts out in China (in the original film, his character is American-born) and leaves to attend an American university and gets corrupted by “our wayward, partying ways,” then leaves to go back to China and become a better person.
Apparently, the deal was made by Relativity Media with a group of Chinese companies (including the government-owned Huaxia Film Distribution Co.), in order to shoulder some of the $12 million in funding that was needed to make the film. As part of the deal, a new, more Asian-centric version of the movie was to be filmed for audiences in China. According to an article in the LA Times, this is a trend that has been gaining steam in Hollywood and recent movies such as “Men in Black 3” and “Looper” have joined the proverbial party.
Anyway, back to the film. So, how did I wind up liking such a predictable and clichéd film such as “21 and Over?” I don’t know. Seriously, I wanted to hate it and pan it and rip it apart for the sake of cinema, but I couldn’t… I can’t. I will not disregard the fact that I was laughing, out loud, the whole way through. I liked the stereotypical jokes. I liked the potty humor and the quick, “did I just see that?” flashes of private parts in peril. I could have done without the lame, love interest/ “growing down” story line cobbled together hastily for Casey’s character, but hey, no movie’s perfect. Plus, the top floor of the “Tower of Power” made up for it.
So, I don’t know, maybe I’m not as grown up as I thought.
And maybe that’s a good thing.