21 & Over

Just this past Sunday, nearly 41 million American viewers tuned in to watch the 2013 Oscars. And despite people’s reservations about host Seth MacFarlene, most of us can agree that the Oscars were a celebration of some of the finest cinematic moments of 2012 (which was a fabulous year for cinema). And just days after the Oscars, Hollywood has decided to release ’21 & Over’ – a movie that celebrates youthful idiocy.

Here’s the story – what little there is. Straight-A student Jeff Chang (Justin Chon) and two best friends (Skylar Astin, Miles Teller) take Jeff Chang out for Jeff Chang’s 21st birthday. But, Jeff Chang has an important medical school interview the next day and Jeff Chang’s oppressive papa will be ready to pick up Jeff Chang at 7 a.m. for his interview. What was supposed to be a quick beer becomes a night of drunken humiliation, and utter debauchery. If you’re watching ’21 & Over’ in China or Hong Kong, you get a different story about a Chinese student who attends an American college and gets corrupted by our westernized partying ways.

Notice my overuse of the name Jeff Chang? You see, I thought if I said it over and over and over again, you would find it funny. Because the screenwriters of this picture seem to think so. Jeff Chang is the joke here as can be seen by the movie’s trailer. Can you guess how many times we hear Jeff Chang’s name being called out in ’21 & Over’? I lost count. Just once, couldn’t someone call him Jeff?

Assuming you’re watching the North American version of ’21 & Over’, you know exactly where this movie is going from the moment its characters and their situations are introduced. This is the directorial debut of Jon Lucas and Scott Moore – the screenwriting duo behind ‘The Hangover’ (which admittedly, I hated). We seem to be getting several of these crude R-rated comedies each year now. The problem is most are concerned with upping the gross-out factor; each film has to be more disgusting than the one that comes before it. Unfortunately, this often comes at the expense of the basic elements of screenwriting – you know, like, um, story and characters. And a note to all comedic filmmakers – never ever use shaky-cam. There is no need for a documentary-like “you are there” feel for a movie such as this. Please get a tripod.

There is nothing new here. This is the cinematic equivalent of concocting a recipe where the ingredients are far from other, far superior pictures. For example, the long-time buddy pair (one is a wisecracking horn-dog, the other is a nerd focused on the future) – ‘Superbad’. What about the strict, ethnic father who wants his son to practise medicine just like he did (without considering the alternative that his son may want something else for himself) – ‘Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle’? And what about the two blindfolded women who make out for the boys but get their revenge by forcing them to kiss each other afterwards – ‘American Pie 2’? ’21 & Over’ blends all these elements (and many more) together and the result is stale, unappetizing and hard to swallow.

As I mentioned before, there isn’t much of a story here. It is intended to be a series of vignettes – it’s all setup and payoff, setup and payoff. But, what’s at stake here? Are we worried that Jeff Chang is going to sleep in and miss his med school interview? Or that his father, Dr. Chang is going to be on the run for Jeff Chang and “honour-kill him” (as one character puts it). Given that Jeff Chang is passed out for most of the picture, the weight of the film lies on the shoulders of his two friends – this is a problem. There is no on-screen chemistry between the two and the script didn’t convince me (even for a moment) that these two would ever register as friends.

And if you’re going to be a raunchy, R-rated comedy – be a raunchy, R-rated comedy. The movie makes a 180-degree turn in its final act in a desperate attempt to give this mean-spirited picture some heart. But, these guys are jerks; I didn’t find anyone likable, and because I have no vested interest in any of them, I didn’t care about the life lessons they gained after this crazy night out. Worse yet, complications (such as Jeff Chang’s friends realizing that Jeff Chang is carrying a gun in his pocket) are resolved in overly-simplistic ways. Surely, this is a pretty serious issue, but ’21 & Over’ isn’t interested in addressing it in mature ways. The tonal shifts in the last act gave me whiplash.

Its primary focus is on grossing us out. And I have to admit, I did laugh a few times. But, there are significantly more misses than hits. I did laugh when Jeff Chang drunkenly yelled out that he was going to be 21 forever. But, for that one laugh, I had to later watch Jeff Chang munching on a tampon, believing it to be a candy bar. And then I had to witness two stoners strip a passed-out Jeff Chang, put him in a bra, and glue a teddy bear to his junk. And then, I had to see Jeff Chang run through the U.Washington campus like a screaming lunatic (and oh, that poor teddy bear). Your mileage may vary; there does seem to be an audience for fat jokes and vomit gags. But I’m so very tired of movies like these. So. Very. Tired.

The best thing that can be said about ’21 & Over’ is that it isn’t as abysmal as it could have been. And, well, at least it’s better than ‘Movie 43’. My suggestion is that you skip out on Jeff Chang’s invitation. Unless you personally know a Jeff Change. In which case you should definitely hang out with him this weekend – he has to be more likable than the Jeff Chang in ’21 & Over’. For sure. QED.

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