I think it’s safe to say that if you’ve seen a trailer for “21 & Over,” you know what you’re in for when you see the film. At 93 minutes, this is a brisk, rowdy bit of fun, and the closest comparison I can make to a recent film is the underseen and underappreciated “Sex Drive,” another comedy that took a fairly familiar form and made it work with sheer force of personality. I wasn’t terribly surprised by anything in “21 & Over,” but I appreciated the energy, the cast, and the near-constant attempts by the film to entertain.
Last year, there was much wringing of hands over the almost complete lack of a moral compass displayed by “Project X,” and that seemed to me to be the point of the film. I think there is always a sense by society that each new generation is the one that is going to burn the entire thing to the ground, and that fear is probably exasperated these days by the way pop culture absorbs the attitudes of youth. I am not only confused by much of what appeals to teenagers today, I am actively irritated by it. And again… that’s the point. It’s not for me. It doesn’t speak to me or for me. And when I watch movies about young people just turning 21 right now in the year 2013, I can’t relate completely because my own coming of age was in a very different climate. I look at the attitudes to sexuality and technology and a dozen different things and I realize that I am wildly out of sync with them in the details of how we live.
But the thing that “21 & Over” gets right, and one of the reasons I think people who had to spend time on a fainting couch after “Project X” will probably greet this one more warmly, is that it focuses on guys who really are just in pursuit of a good night out with friends. I think any film that spends most of its time focused on partying and drinking and bad behavior is going to push certain buttons, and this film leans on stereotypes and a certain degree of lowbrow sexual energy, but I don’t think there’s a mean streak to it. That’s where I get uncomfortable, and both Miles Teller and Skylar Astin are genial enough to sell this as a case of decent guys on a bit of a bender. I like that there’s no strained high concept behind their night of debauchery, either. It’s as simple as one of their friends turning 21 and finally being able to go out for a night of legal drinking. That’s a big milestone in American culture, even though most people who have any interest in drinking have found a way to start well before that 21st birthday. In this case, Casey (Astin) and MIller (Teller) drive up to the college where their friend Jeff Chang (Justin Chon) is going to school to celebrate his birthday with him. It’s the night before a huge interview for med school, though, arranged by Jeff’s overbearing father (Francois Chau), and they are all warned that Jeff has to be in top form the following morning so there will be no partying at all that night.
It’s an amiable, loosely-structured film where there are recurrent incidents that start to accumulate, more and more people getting angrier and angrier with the three guys. And while the three leads are indeed appealingly cast, it’s hard to claim that they don’t bring this on themselves. Jeff Chang appears to be a blackout drinker, and he’s such an asshole by about forty minutes into the film that I had trouble caring whether he made it to his interview or not. I am a giant Irish jackass when I drink, and I learned that by the time I turned 20. As a result, I stopped drinking to the point where I would turn red and throw lawn furniture at people, and I’ve been able to function as a human being since then. There is some attempt to explain Jeff Chang’s self-destructive tendencies, but in a film this broad, it’s hard to shift suddenly into serious talk of suicide attempts and depression, and the film wants to use that explanation as a free pass for all the more outrageous stuff. I prefer films like this when they don’t pretend to suddenly be serious or grounded or reach for a sentimental tone that the rest of the film can’t support. Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, the writer/directors here, were also the original writers of “The Hangover,” and it’s easy to imagine how this got funded with them attached.
Don’t get me wrong… I laughed. I think Miles Teller in particular is quite winning with his motor-mouthed underachiever role, and based on this and “The Spectacular Now,” I think it’s safe to say Teller is going to be working for a long time. He seems equally at home being grounded and real and being ridiculous, and he seems game for pretty much anything. The young cast in general handle themselves well, but in many cases, they are handcuffed by a script that seems to take the easy way out in almost every beat. There’s very little here that you haven’t seen before, and while it is often funny, “21 & Over” is also often familiar, and if you’re not automatically interested in a movie about young guys and their misadventures with alcohol, there’s nothing here to really transcend that. The biggest audience for the movie is the audience still aspiring to that benchmark, and for many audiences, this will be about as big a kick as watching a game of beer pong.
“21 & Over” opens tomorrow nationwide.