21 & Over
dir. Jon Lucas and Scott Moore
Release Date: Mar 01, 13
There was a moment in time, somewhere between Drake’s release of “The Motto” and right now as you read this, where “YOLO” (that ever-vexing acronym for “you only live once”) ceased to be an empty platitude hollered by the young, or even an ironic joke perpetuated by those aware enough to joke about the charade even as they carried on like idiots as well, and became a standard for living one’s life. 21 & Over is the latest film in a progression of films (the inexplicably amusing Project X being last year’s model, and the most recent) that aim to canonize the relentless hedonism of older teenagers/younger college kids who’ve decided that there isn’t a future any longer, and like Ke$ha is currently singing on Top 40 radio, that they should make the most of the night like they’re gonna die young. And that’s a pretty sad state of affairs.
21 & Over, of course, isn’t really in the business of contemplating such matters. It’s a fist-pumping testament to the joys of hard drinking, blackout nights, semi-deep late-night existential realizations and, more than anything, teen comedies from a decade ago. On the 21st birthday of their friend Jeff Chang (Justin Chon), the straitlaced Casey (Skylar Astin) and the boorish dudebro Miller (Miles Teller, more or less reprising his Project X performance as channeled through Vince Vaughn) head to Jeff’s college campus for a night of unbridled debauchery. When Jeff protests, fearful of doing anything to foul up his med school interviews the following day or upset his domineering father, Miller pressures him into grabbing just one beer. Of course, one beer turns into Jeff getting belligerently drunk, Miller and Casey losing track of where they are and a journey across what seems to be the most irresponsibly run college campus in movie history to try and get Jeff home in time. Over the course of the evening, Miller and Casey learn some disconcerting things about their friend (the sort of things that’d ideally make them feel guilt over enabling his problems, but let’s move on), hash out long-standing issues with one another and learn what it is to be loyal to one’s friends. Sort of.
The handful of genuinely sweet moments in 21 & Over feel totally at odds with the rest of the movie, and it’s a shame that those fleeting instances make the film a lot more interesting. In between forcibly overcooked vignettes involving an enraged Latina sorority, a domineering Asian dad or a lunatic alpha male (this is not a movie that handles stereotypes with any delicacy), Casey and Miles do get brief chances to examine their characters a little more, and Astin and Teller are ably up to the task. Teller, in particular, becomes way less grating when he gets to drop the sexist dork act and contemplate how working in a gas station while his friends go off to college has left him rudderless. For the most part Astin is saddled with a romantic subplot involving an attractive free spirit (Sarah Wright) who makes Casey question his future as a hedge fund manager, lured astray by the twin powers of music festivals and sex. (Incidentally, the music festival jokes throughout the movie feel strongly shoehorned in for no better reason than “that’s what the kids are doing.”) Whenever 21 & Over remembers to be human, it’s at least a passable teen comedy, albeit one that steals from a lot of others, in particular a sequence involving blindfolded lesbians and gay panic that’s lifted wholesale from American Pie 2.
But, more often than not, the film forgets that it’s about human beings, embraces the tropes and glorifies the destruction of the human body for the sake of having stories to tell, so that when these characters inevitably get jobs and become obnoxious financial sector employees instead of obnoxious twentysomethings, they’ll have stories to tell over backyard cookouts. When Casey and Miller start learning about how troubled Jeff has been (poor Chon, having to embarrass himself nonstop while being reduced to a plot point), there’s no genuine feeling of fear for their friend; he becomes the lens through which they examine themselves. And even though the movie attempts a late-game message about living by your own standards instead of other people’s, it takes violence and reckless self-destruction to get there. It almost feels redundant to talk about the ethical implications of 21 & Over; after all, if you’re open to taking life cues from a film like this, you’re already in its target demographic, and if you’re not, you already know better. But when a studio on the level of Warner Brothers figures that this is what the people want, it says a lot about where the people are at right now.