The poster art for 21 & Over features a dude nearly naked (yet sporting a bra), fist pumped and feet planted on the hood of a police cruiser. Marketing probably thought they hit pay dirt, lighting on an image that might define the Millennial Generation’s particular carpe-diem, boozy-burp yawp. It’s a total fucking fraud.
In their directorial debut, screenwriting team Scott Moore and Jon Lucas (The Hangover, The Change-Up) continue their infatuation with, y’know, bros just being bros. In their playbook, that typically translates into unquestionably bad decisions made under the influence of uppers, downers, and/or bone-deep self-loathing.
Tightly wound Jeff Chang (Chon) is newly 21, but reluctant to celebrate with his best friends from high school, Miller (Teller) and Casey (Astin, the nice-guy love interest from Pitch Perfect), who drop in unannounced at his college dorm room for a wild night on the town. Jeff Chang – and, yes, everybody calls him by his full name – has a crucial med school entrance interview in the morning, but he figures, what the hell, what’s one drink? Predictably, one drink spirals into many, many drinks, and soon enough, Jeff Chang is a stumble-drunk dodging cops, an angry cheerleader, and an entire Latina sorority out for blood.
Nothing I’ve said about the plot isn’t true, but it certainly gives the illusion that Jeff Chang – he’s the one iconically positioned Iwo Jima-like on the poster – has much of anything to do with what happens in the movie. That’s a fake-out: Yes, he drives the plot, but he’s in a walking-dead blackout for most of the picture, even as we learn he’s failing out of school and practically suicidal. That revelation rubs all the more wrongly when you pause to reflect on Lucas and Moore’s I-dare-you-to-be-offended racial jokes. (Jeff Chang’s buddy Miller, written and performed as a tattered carbon copy of Vince Vaughn’s signature motormouth insouciance, gets the ball rolling by first calling him a “tiny, yellow son of a bitch.”) 21 & Over is essentially, and existentially, stumped by its own setup. Jeff Chang’s emotional turmoil is troubling stuff, and Chon is a vibrant enough presence in the early scenes to invite our sympathy. But the filmmakers sweep all that aside for one more crazy-night escapade with white guys front and center and Chon practically comatose at the edge of the frame.
If 21 & Over hadn’t itself made such a point of pushing to the wings its Asian lead while simultaneously mining race for laughs, I wouldn’t be harrumphing about said white guys, because Teller and Astin are engaging actors playing mostly amusing foils – one gauche and fuck-all, the other courteous and tightly wound. 21 & Over doesn’t posit a single original thought, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its (incredibly crude) charms. Slo-mo puke, lovingly lavished by the camera, is not one of those charms, but there are enough inventive sight gags and whip-crack one-liners here to make one wish the filmmakers hadn’t been so enamored with the dumb shit we’ve all seen before – and from these filmmakers in particular. That fist pump on top of the car? It isn’t a call to action, it’s a cry for help, and Lucas and Moore aren’t savvy enough, or brave enough, to truly plumb the gallows humor embedded in their premise.