Somewhere along the line R-rated comedies found themselves overrun with dicks. Not real ones, although there’s too goddamn many of those these days too, but instead I’m talking about the lead characters who cause a film’s “comedic” and consequence-free conflict without concern for the welfare of anyone or anything else only to be rewarded for their efforts with audience laughs and a happy ending.
Say hello to the pricks at the center of the new film, 21 & Over.
Miller (Miles Teller) and Casey (Skylar Astin) arrive on the campus of Northern Pacific University intent on surprising their good friend Jeff Chang (Justin Chon) for his 21st birthday. The plan is to take him out to celebrate, “fuck him with alcohol” and have him back home in time for his demanding father to take him to a med school interview in the morning. Of course the night goes almost immediately awry as Jeff Chang ends up imbibing ludicrous amounts of alcohol, peeing on a few girls, puking (in slow motion) atop a mechanical bull, passing out and being generally abused by friends and strangers alike. His meant-to-be-hilarious state of unconsciousness and inebriation leaves the other two stuck trying to find their way back to his house and encountering all manner of wacky interruptions and obstacles along the way.
If you’re thinking this has the makings of a crossover between The Hangover and Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle you’re right, but unfortunately it’s one stripped of anything resembling real laughs. It’s also lacking originality and a working moral compass, but let’s get the good out of the way first.
Buried deep within writers/directors Jon Lucas and Scott Moore’s script is a slight commentary on the deceptive nature of friendships and how we often fool ourselves into thinking we know someone far better than we do. It’s touched upon with the secret dramas in Jeff Chang’s life as well as the clash of personalities between Miller and Casey, but in both cases they’re explained and excused away without any real offer of consequence or conclusion.
Also, Samantha Futerman has a brief but funny scene.
Also, the line “Fuck your laptop! Get a desktop!” is inexplicably hilarious.
And that’s it for the good.
Comedy-wise the film tries to be a beat for beat remake of Lucas and Moore’s big hit, The Hangover, but it ends up much closer to that film’s lifeless clone of a sequel with the added distinction of lead characters who never approach being likeable. While that first film found legitimate and copious humor in the misfortunes of its characters, their latest simply throws the laziest gags, punchlines and jokes at viewers in the hopes that something sticks. “Are your eyes open?” asks Miller to Jeff Chang. “I can’t tell.” Get it? Shit sticks too.
Casey is a too-serious Jew with a stick up his ass when it comes to taking a risk! Male cheerleaders secretly want to bone each other in the ass! Jeff Chang is pressured by his strict Asian-American father (François Chau) to be an academic over-achiever! Binge-drinking to the point of passing out is hilarious! Miller is… well, Miller is an asshole.
And we’re supposed to love him for it.
He’s the main instigator of everything that goes wrong here, but we’re meant to side with him when he browbeats Casey and Jeff Chang into choosing fun over growing up and being responsible. The film sees it as an either/or proposition with no middle ground, and worse, if you do choose to have fun the trail of emotional, physical and property damage you leave in your wake is not only expected but applauded.
The issue is exacerbated here by the uncanny resemblance of Teller’s delivery and performance to just about any of Vince Vaughn’s comedically dickish (and generally unlikeable) characters from the past decade. Like Vaughn, Teller’s mouth rarely lets up delivering such a constant stream of chatter that the odds dictate something funny will eventually slip through. (Interestingly, Teller plays the exact same role in the upcoming The Spectacular Now to the point that that film could very well be a prequel to this one.)
A side plot featuring Casey’s attempts to win the heart of a free-spirited co-ed named Nicole (Sarah Wright) is equally misguided. She continues to pressure him with the film’s mantra about choosing fun and irresponsibility over “growing up” but also allows for the arrival of a villain in the form of her cartoonish boyfriend Randy (Jonathan Keltz) and his ridiculous sidekicks. He’s the bad guy because he loves cheerleading and has a violent streak, and yet we’re meant to approve when Miller punches an adult in the face later with no legitimate justification?
While the lack of laughs kills the film’s comedic hopes, the lack of anything approaching a consequence squashes the movie’s very basic attempts at dramatic arcs or storytelling. The fact that it’s a raucous comedy doesn’t diminish the need for characters to learn a lesson or see the effects of their actions to at least a minimal degree, but the film eschews anything like that in response to the binge drinking, bodily abuse, damage, theft, depression issues, physical violence and more. Instead the boys simply learn that staying in touch with your old friends is pretty darn important.
21 & Over is comedy that celebrates assholes and forgets to be funny. Welcome to adulthood.
The Upside: Miles Teller and Skylar Astin give the impression that they’re talented; a couple laughs
The Downside: Just isn’t funny; message that you need to choose between having fun or being responsible is asinine; film posits that acting like a prick should be rewarded
On the Side: Justin Chon, who plays the character celebrating his 21st birthday, is actually 32 years old.