A Bad Hangover, by David Bax
21 and Over is the directorial debut of John Lucas and Scott Moore, the guys who wrote 2009’s The Hangover. Since this new film also chronicles an odyssey of hetero male debauchery, comparisons are easy and helpful. All the basic elements of the earlier, successful film are present. A group of guys embark on a fun night out, too much alcohol gets imbibed and an escalating series of crazy stuff happens. Yet while The Hangover was a surprise success that remains watchable, 21 and Over, much like one of its characters, Jeff Chang (always referred to by both names in one of the film’s funnier touches), falls flat on its face. The differences between the two may be intangible but they are vital.
It’s Jeff Chang’s (Justin Chon) 21st birthday and his two best friends from high school have traveled from their respective colleges to his school unannounced, with the plan to surprise him with a celebratory night out. Casey (Skylar Astin) is the square and reasonable Ed Helms character, quickly establishing himself as the film’s lead. Miller (Miles Teller) is the smarmy, hedonistic Bradley Cooper character, who compensates for his slacker loserdom with exuberant overconfidence and wit. Jeff Chang is, by turns, both the Justin Bartha character and the Zach Galifianakis character. The hitch in the young men’s plan is that Jeff Chang is being picked up for a medical school interview at 7:00 the next morning by his unforgiving taskmaster of a father (Lost’s Francois Chau). Unfortunately, the birthday boy quickly drinks himself into an unresponsive stupor and neither of the other two can remember where he lives.
One of the main reasons 21 and Over fails where The Hangover exceled can be found in the two sets of actors named above. While Helms, Cooper and Galifianakis brought both humanity and individually unique, consistently comic idiosyncrasies to their parts, their counterparts here are worn out copies. Astin is essentially the same blandly good-guyish sort he played in last year’s dreadful and inexplicably overrated Pitch Perfect (I’d rewatch 21 and Over twice before sitting through that sweaty, desperate embarrassment again). In his hands, Casey possesses no more identity than can be gleaned from his outfit (he’s the one with a sweater and tie on). Teller, meanwhile, comes across as a high school kid doing an impression of Vince Vaughn. Chon, on the other hand, has an infectious energy and quick timing but he regrettably spends most of the film mumbling and drooling.
Perhaps the most important – and fundamentally different – element is the direction. As stated, this is Lucas and Moore’s first time behind the camera and it’s less than inspired. Hangover director Todd Phillips, though he may be juvenile and lacking in introspection, had gained some experience by the time he made that film. This was a man whose first feature was a documentary about GG Allin. He knows about depravity, violence and sleaze. As a result, The Hangover was covered with a surprisingly un-Hollywood layer of grime. However outlandish the action became, Phillips maintained a believability and, as a result, a real sense of danger.
21 and Over, on the other hand, always reminds you it’s a movie. It does so with the generic college-town setting. It does so with the stock characters, all with resolutions that are clear from the first frame in which they appear. Mostly it does so with a sense of humor that is dated and so cynically pandering, it will be a wonder if even the teenagers at whom it is aimed will respond. A painfully contrived scene in which sorority girls are spanked and forced to make out with each other will likely cause even the lustiest eyes to roll. This lack of originality in the scenarios is echoed in the sentiments. The first two acts are replete with trite, “carpe diem”-type notions of how you’re only young once and how college somehow necessarily represents the best years of your life.
In that third act, however, there are a number of almost saving graces. There’s a refreshing – not to mention true – implication that these boys’ lives are really just beginning. The tension between Casey and Miller’s differences and their engrained attachments comes to a head in a way that is honest and respectful of the characters, not just boilerplate or crossing things off a story arc to-do list. Perhaps most importantly, the exploitation of the nameless young actresses is revisited (and then some) on the bare flesh of the males.
All the decent stuff in the final act of 21 and Over make the case that this movie has enough story for an okay episode of a 22 minute sitcom episode with an additional hour and ten minutes of mostly unfunny filler. Lucas and Moore bring nothing extra in terms of life or joy or stakes. There’s more to a movie than a script.