Created on Thursday, 07 March 2013 04:06 Written by Brett Murphy / Staff Writer
Jeff Chang — or “JeffChang” as his friends call him — has the biggest interview of his (father’s) life tomorrow. But tonight, incidentally, is the eve of his 21st birthday, and Jeff Chang’s two best friends from high school have shown up to usher the overachieving premed student into manhood with his first legal bar crawl.
“21 & Over” tries hard for the wild and raunchy laughs immortalized by “The Hangover,” but first-time directors and “Hangover” writers Jon Lucas and Scott Moore fail to tap into the college atmosphere they try so hard to create. It shows college through the lens of a yearning high schooler, portraying it as a consequence-free haven of beautiful people, free beer and mechanical bulls. Not totally far off, but the collegiate setting doesn’t make their antics any funnier or more ludicrous, just slightly more believable.
The film relies heavily on chauvinistic humor, mostly spewing from under the visor of Miller (Miles Teller), the community-college dropout and party animal who acts as the driving force behind the wild night out. The humor starts to fizzle when “21 & Over” tries to ground its leads in latent sentimentality and emotion, and Miller’s frat-boy act loses any vulgar wit and becomes a little sad.
Lucas gives his hand in directing, and although he demonstrates definite moments of effective absurdity — such as Jeff (Justin Chon) sprinting through the quad wearing nothing but a teddy bear (you see a lot of naked Jeff) — the movie suffers from such a low-stakes plot.
After one drink turns into 20, Miller and his former best friend Casey (Skylar Astin) are lost on campus, and the birthday boy is either missing completely or takes the form of a rag doll for the rest of the movie. And as the hours until his big interview in the morning dwindle, it becomes clear that the one-time triumvirate is not what it used to be. Miller, resilient in his nihilistic worldview, butts heads with Casey, a Stanford standout in a tie and sweater with a job already lined up after graduation.
Casey’s future-oriented, work-hard mentality is at odds with the play-hard school of thought to which Miller subscribes. His philosophy is, “We gotta do as much crazy sh*t as we can before we graduate.” Astin and Teller have good give-and-take with each other, and many students can relate to their qualms.
They don’t know anybody on campus, so the team has to bounce around bars, parties and sorority houses in search of clues for Jeff’s address. And in their hunt for his house, they learn some troubling facts about their evidently estranged friend’s college life.
Successfully getting Jeff home becomes a metaphor for getting him figured out and resurrecting the relationships that unraveled after graduation. He might not be quite the ambitious and aspiring doctor he has led his friends to believe he is, and his situation is all too familiar for those stuck in the shadow of an overbearing parent.
Still, even with the deeper underpinnings that try to make the drunken college kids something more, you’re not too worried about their state of affairs. Plus, in the age of smartphones, it’s difficult to believe they can’t find their way back.
“21 & Over” comes close to the laughs it shoots for, but the uneven tone and lack of a scene-stealing performance from any of its leads holds it back. The utopian — or perhaps dystopian — image of college that the movie posits will go over well with younger crowds, but the not-so subtle anti-Semitism, poop jokes and routinely exposed pubic regions — among other pleasant vulgarities — won’t sit well with most audiences.