What can you say about 21 & Over (2013), a movie that is an insult and rebuke to intelligent and sensitive thought? To give it a critical analysis would grant the premise that it deserves one, which it doesn’t, but I didn’t deserve what it took from me (93 minutes … just gone), so I suppose we’re even. Let me just say that it takes a pretty terrible movie to make me pine sentimentally about Project X (2012).
Here is the latest movie in the bad-choices/raging-party trend of comedies that was ushered in by The Hangover (2009). 21 & Over has the distinction of being the most racist and homophobic of the bunch (Project X retains its title as the most sexist. Congratulations, Project X) and is perhaps the least funny, but I’ve yet to see a great comedy emerge from this trend so that distinction is less clear. What is clear is that 21 & Over is a rushed and lazy retread of an already overworked premise that wasn’t that good in the first place. If The Hangover, in all its unremarkable commonness, is the standard, then the returns have diminished to the point that 21 & Over hardly even registers.
Two friends from high school, Miller (Miles Teller) and Casey (Skylar Astin), have chosen different paths since graduation, as Casey climbs the dean’s list at his fancy university and Miller is a partying dropout. They join together on the occasion of a third friend’s 21st birthday. This is Jeff Chang (Justin Chon), who, wouldn’t you know it, has the job interview of his life the next day, an interview his despotic father, Dr. Chang (François Chau), insists he succeed in. We can tell Dr. Chang is unhip because he listens to “Il Mio Tesoro,” apparently on repeat: in his car, in his apartment, everywhere. Very unhip, Dr. Chang—the whole opera is great, don’t ignore the other parts.
Jeff Chang agrees to join his friends for the proverbial one drink, and before long he’s incapacitated and Miller and Casey are charged with trying to return him to an apartment they don’t know the address of, and they wind up breaking into a sorority, crashing a house party, crossing the wrong psychotic male cheerleader (who happens to be dating Casey’s love interest, naturally), and setting free a wild buffalo, all while Dr. Chang is hot on their tail and Jeff Chang is dragged motionless and passed out alongside them. Jeff Chang emerges from unconsciousness only to make matters worse and, in one case, eat a tampon for reasons beyond understanding.
Casey and Miller refer to their friend only as Jeff Chang, never just Jeff. There’s a subtle racism at work there, both emphasizing his Asianness while removing some of his individuality and humanity, as if his full name “Jeff Chang” is the only name for him, like how some pet owners refer to their dogs exclusively as “Mr. Sprinkles.” In terms of what the script allows him, Jeff Chang is effectively a dog to these two. The script appears to be convinced that the pseudo-formality of the full name adds comedic effect to the proceedings as Casey and Miller rehash what has just happened with Shakespearean beauties like “We lost Jeff Chang” and “Dude, I just circumcised Jeff Chang.” It’s surprising how often Casey and Miller refer to him like he’s not even there, even while he’s conscious. If you don’t mind, as there are absolutely no other Jeffs in the picture, from this point on, I’ll simply refer to Jeff Chang as Jeff, which is, you know, his name.
This is a movie without merit, one that stumbles from one area to the next with no cohesion or narrative propulsion. It gives us heroes that are either too boorish to root for (in Miller’s case) or too vanilla (in Casey’s), and once again takes aim on the standard target of these movies: ambition, compassion and sensitivity. 21 & Over thinks it is some noble and uniquely interesting pursuit to drink yourself to sickness (and the passed out Jeff is a lightweight compared to Casey and Miller who go for hours and miles after Jeff has joined the benumbed) but misses the point that interesting wildness, the lusted-after “epicness” that these movies try to attain, requires more thought than jumbled images of people chugging and writhing.
I don’t mind being bored by these antics, but something more unsettling was at work during 21 & Over, exemplified by a distasteful turn of events in which Casey’s and Miller’s depravity is turned on them and we are expected to sympathize. Early in the movie the pair stumble upon a sorority initiation ceremony in which blindfolded pledges are awaiting the time-honored spanking with paddles that are a staple of college comedies. Using the girls’ willingness to be included in the house, Miller coerces the co-eds into making out with each other, under the guise that it’s part of the ritual. Men have been shameless about sex for the entire history of the cinema and far beyond that, so there’s no new territory broken here (Miller, we discover, is not even above telling women he has lymphoma in an attempt to get laid out of sympathy), but later Casey and Miller are brought in front of the powerful sorority’s secret tribunal and they are asked to kiss each other in return for fooling the pledges. The protests of disgust put up by Casey and Miller, and the film’s insistence that this, making two heterosexual men kiss each other, is a punishment that far outweighed the crime (which was, remember, forcing two heterosexual women to kiss each other) is an odiousness of a different sort.
This is filmmaking at its most lazy, most easy, most thoughtless. It’s the type of movie in which two violent rivals instantly reconcile when one admits to the other, “My dad’s a dick too,” before they embrace. Perhaps the movie is a comfort to people whose dads are dicks, but I found very little use for it. It did lead me to a decent recording of Nicolai Gedda singing “Il Mio Tesoro” at Aux-en-Provence, which is no small thing. I offer here it as an alternative to watching the movie.