In many ways 21 & Over is a more difficult film to review than, say, a Jack the Giant Slayer. A college romp about three friends reuniting to celebrate the last of them to turn 21, the film’s not really worth the words invested. A comedy of this ilk is good or it isn’t. And given the subjective nature of comedy as a genre, one person’s middling junk is another’s middling treasure. I can tell you I had a good time with 21 & Over, that I laughed throughout and found the performances and writing to be quick-witted and enough to hold my attention. I can also tell you I haven’t thought about the film once from the moment I exited the theatre to when I sat down to write this review.
21 & Over plays to a specific crowd. If you’re in college and happen to partake in some minor intoxicants every now and again, this movie will likely have a spot on the shelf of you or your roommates – it’s the sort of late night odyssey one passes out to under the company of friends after a night of barhopping. To that end, there’s a communal aspect at work that plays better in a roomful of people, away from a more conscious level of scrutiny. If you’ve been to college and view your time there with rose-colored glasses, much of 21 will feel familiar, though you’re likely to have less of a stake in the proceedings than someone still living the lifestyle. Thankfully, even outside of educational context, 21 works as a decent screwball comedy.
Something of a riff on Weekend at Bernie’s actually, if Bernie were not dead but just very, very intoxicated, Casey (Skylar Astin, 26) and Miller (Miles Teller, 26) reunite to take their high school pal Jeff Chang (Justin Chon, 31) out to celebrate his 21st birthday with a night of libation consumption. Jeff Chang ends up getting worse for wear and it falls to Casey and Miller to drag their buddy home in time for his big interview the next day. Except they have no clue where Jeff Chang lives and, in his current state, neither does Jeff Chang.
There’s some admittedly funny gags here: an LSD-tripping hobo in a bathrobe and Native American headdress, a guy that takes a dart through the cheek, Jeff Chang puking on a mechanical bull, a cultish sorority of Latinas looking to exact revenge on Casey and Miller for their trail of misdeeds. These broader strokes are a large part of why what works about 21 & Over works. Whenever the film tries to mine more meaningful territory such as friendship or self-worth, it loses itself.
The film’s biggest trapping is just how goddamn on the rails everything feels. Jeff Chang (who’s never not referred to as anything other than “Jeff Chang”) feels pressured to be a doctor because of his overly domineering, traditional father, Casey’s become such a stiff that he’s forgotten how to have fun while fun is all Miller wants to have. These characters could not have been lifted more wholesale had their names been Kumar, Harold & Stifler.
The shame of 21 & Over, as you’ve likely guessed: there’s nothing to push it into an upper echelon of collegiate comedies that includes fare like Animal House or Old School. The potential is certainly there, and a greater emphasis on keeping the comedy going opposed to heading for heavily-treaded territory would’ve been welcomed. It’s a movie content doing what it does, resting in some very cliché confines and making the most of its limited shelf life.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars