’21 and Over’ is lowbrow comedy… for better or worse

From Left to Right: Miles Teller, Justin Chon and Skylar Astin in '21 and Over'
From Left to Right: Miles Teller, Justin Chon and Skylar Astin in ’21 and Over’

If you judge a lowbrow comedy like 21 and Over strictly by how many laughs and how much box office it generates among its target audience, this is going to be a very successful movie.  That doesn’t make it a great film, merely a profitable one.  In fact, by the time the opening weekend is over, someone will be making storyboards for Way Over 21 or 22 and Really Over.

Justin Chong is “JeffChang” (it is said as though it is just one word throughout) and he’s a senior at Northern Pacific University (the University of Washington campus providing a perfect backdrop) who has just turned 21.  His birthday is the day before a potentially life-altering event, his interview with a doctor from the medical school his physician parents want him to attend.

However, since it IS his 21st birthday, his two best friends from childhool, “Miller” (Teller) and “Casey” (Astin) make a surprise visit with the stated goal of getting him totally wasted to celebrate the event.  After all, turning 21 means you can now legally do all the drinking you have been doing anyway for the past four or five years, so it is a very important life-event.

They arrive at JeffChang’s place to find “Dr. Chang” there, reminding JeffChang his suit is pressed and he will be picking him up at 7 in the morning to take him to the interview he pulled strings to arrange.  But once he’s gone, Miller twists JeffChang’s arm (figuratively) and gets him to agree to go out and have one beer.

"JeffChang" at the 'peak' of his 21st birthday celebration in '21 and Over'
“JeffChang” at the ‘peak’ of his 21st birthday celebration in ’21 and Over’

But it isn’t only one beer.  After a period of extended debauchery, Miller and Casey have an unconscious JeffChang on their hands and no idea how to get him back to his apartment.  They did meet JeffChang’s friend “Nicole” (Wright) and they know she’s in a sorority.  The new plan, find Nicole and get JeffChang home in time to grab some sleep, some sobriety and be ready for the interview.

The rest is just more excuses to engage in staging events that will appeal to the target demographic and make them laugh at the trio’s adventures.  Along the way they encounter “Randy”.  They had problems with him in the first bar they were in and the situation only gets worse.  There’s a bit in a Latina sorority, encounters with a white man in an American Indian headdress and much much more.

Lowbrow, raunchy comedy appeals to the lowest common denominator and this hits that mark square on.  Comparisons between 21 and Over and The Hangover are inevitable, however a better vehicle for comparison/contrast is the classic Animal House.  With the exception of the vomiting and the penis jokes, the humor is similar.  Drinking to excess, at least one protagonist pre-occupied with getting laid and an uptight adult trying to gum up the works.  But Animal House’s humor is smart.  21 and Over’s humor evokes laughter from the target audience, but the non-target audience will only chuckle a few times.

Sarah Wright dazzles with her smile in '21 and Over'
Sarah Wright dazzles with her smile in ’21 and Over’

That’s a shame because writer/directors Lucas and Moore have a great underlying theme to explore here.  How the close friendships between young men fade as they get older, because they simply don’t communicate well with one another.  More exploration of this theme, and a lighter touch with the raunch might not have generated quite the same number of laughs but it would have been a better film for that non-target audience.

Sarah Wright and Justin Chon are great in this.  Miles Teller seems to be channeling a younger version of Vince Vaughn (which wasn’t helped by the dialogue) while Skylar Astin is the cliché of the goody-two-shoes type, wanting to break out of the mold his parents have forced him into.

There are spoilers ahead, so you’ve been warmed.  There is some serious implausibility here that the bulk of the audience won’t care about but they are worthy of note.  There are laws that govern bartenders in every state and JeffChang’s level of intoxication reaches the point where no one would serve him any more booze early on.  Yet the bartenders continue to lubricate him to excess.  We learn later on that he is actually close to flunking out of school, which means no medical school would be interviewing him.  Competition to get into med school is particularly fierce and they do look at grades.  Movies that encourage drinking and a certain level of debauchery among college students aren’t offensive for the most part. But making the frequent dropping of “acid” look attractive and ‘normal’ is not necessarily a good message for this film’s demographic audience.

Had the creators of 21 and Over eased up on the over-the-top humor and focused on the dynamic of three very close male friends trying to rekindle the bond between them in one wild night; this could have been a great film.  But it must be recognized that such a film probably would not find a mainstream audience.  When it comes to making a movie that will fill auditoriums and make the box office numbers go ‘cha-ching’ at a fast pace, the makers of this film have hit a big home run.

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