The mythic college experience, the one dramatized in countless movies and television shows with a kind of oversized affection, involves a certain amount of reckless dangerousness, along with the all-important three B’s – booze, brawling, and breasts. “21 and Over,” a new comedy written and directed by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, whose marginal notoriety came from writing the script that would eventually become “The Hangover,” is one such movie, in which the cinematically heightened, beer-soaked college experience is a defining moment that trumps everything, including basic human decency.
Just like in “The Hangover,” “21 and Over” opens in the middle of the story, with two twenty-something dudes walking through a college campus with nothing but a tube sock on their junk, their bare red asses branded and quite obviously spanked. One of the nondescript white guys (it’s either Miles Teller from “Rabbit Hole” or Skylar Astin from “Pitch Perfect“) says to the other, “That never happened,” which, in bro-centric, hetero-normative cinema means, of course, that something incredibly gay just happened. (Turns out: it did.) The movie then flashes back to “One Day Earlier,” and we watch Casey (Astin), who you can tell is the straight-laced one because a) he’s Jewish and b) wearing a tie; and Miller (Teller), who you can tell is the irresponsible goofball because he’s a) cursing like a longshoreman and b) has the frantic speech patterns of “Swingers“-era Vince Vaughn. They’re visiting their BFF at college, Jeff Chang (Justin Chon), for his 21st birthday, at some fictional, vaguely Pacific northeastern college (it was filmed at the University of Washington, which wisely never identifies itself as such). And guess what? They are going to get sooooo fucked up!
The only problem is, of course, that Jeff Chang’s father, a stern Asian stereotype played by Francois Chau, aka the weird guy from the “initiation” videos on “Lost” (“Welcome to the Pearl Station…”), has set up an important med school meeting for him the next morning at 7 AM. They decide to just go out for a little while, have a couple of drinks and then bring Jeff Chang back home in time for a restful few hours of sleep before his big interview. Of course, things do not go quite so smoothly, and the rest of the movie serves as a series of increasingly outrageous scenarios. Oh yeah and there’s some toothy sorority girl (Sarah Wright) who Casey falls in love with or something.
Of course, the crippling problem with “21 and Over” (or one of them at least) is that these outrageous scenarios are banal and threadbare, and in their attempt at escalating the severity of the inappropriateness, come across as even more painful and dull. There is also, of course, a groan-inducing amount of sexism and racism (at one point they break into a Latina sorority house, which gives you a nice, vanilla-and-chocolate swirl of the two) and general fuck-yeah bro-tastic dudery, which includes (but is not limited to) topless girls at a bonfire, a gun going off in a crowded location (even more iffy in the current socio-political climate), slow-motion barf, public urination, multiple gay make-out sessions and a teddy bear being forcibly ripped off of a man’s penis. Not to count my chickens, but I think the 2014 Oscar race is all locked up.
A lot of the central part of the movie concerns the two friends transporting an unconscious Jeff Chang around the campus, which turns the whole operation into an impromptu, college-set remake of “Weekend at Bernie’s” (How has no one ever thought of that before? If you’re going to remake “Red Dawn”…) As it turns out, a college-set remake of “Weekend at Bernie’s” is terribly unfunny and boring. There are small attempts at characterization and “deeper meaning,” but it’s like the filmmakers took notes during a John Hughes marathon without ever investigating why those moments in those movies actually work. “They’re in there, so they should be in our movie,” was probably the line of thinking. It doesn’t work out too well.
Last year’s similarly poetic ode to debauchery, “Project X” (that one was produced by the director of “The Hangover” – yes, this is getting horribly confusing), was more morally questionable than “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Django Unchained” combined, but it has a certain amount of identifiably charming pep. It ostensibly existed in the “found footage” genre, replicating a captured-on-cell phone look that perfectly encapsulates the Twitter’d, Instagram’d, you-are-there-ness of the current generation. And when “Project X” went for heightened stylization, it really went for it. “Project X” was purposefully crummy-looking; “21 and Over” just looks like shit, with some of the muddiest digital photography ever (inexcusable in this day and age). The other difference between “Project X” and “21 and Over” is that “Project X,” since it was set in high school, at least had a little bit of danger. Those kids could have potentially ruined their lives; the characters in “21 and Over” are essentially adults, and selfish, irresponsible adults at best. It’s kind of hard to feel anything but a light glaze of sympathy.
But the worst thing about “21 and Over” might be just how predictable it is – every gay slur, every bodily excretion – you can all see it coming a million miles away. For a movie that tries to create and sustain a sensation of wild unpredictability, it’s a huge failure. It’s not shocking if we’ve all seen it a thousand times before. With “21 and Over,” it’s all been there, drank that. [D]