21 & Over
21 & Over (2013)
★★ / ★★★★
Hailing from a family of doctors for five generations, there is extreme pressure on Jeff Chang (Justin Chon) to do well on his medical school interview the next day. Because it is his twenty-first birthday, Miller (Miles Teller) and Casey (Skylar Astin), Jeff Chang’s best friends in high school, drop by for a surprise all-night hangout which involves nudity, sorority girls, and a whole lot of booze. Can Casey and Miller get their hungover friend ready for perhaps the most important interview of his life?
For a while, “21 & Over” is a lot of stupid fun. The usual montages of people drinking themselves silly are present, but some of its content actually surprised me. When it veers away from what we expect it to be–college kids acting like fools–it has something interesting to say about strains put on friendships when geographical distance is involved, insecurities one feels when everything seems to be going well for a close friend, and the script’s attempt to subvert Asian stereotypes. These positive elements come only in glimpses but they are there and they draw us in.
It is nice to see a young character of Asian descent not portrayed as some dysfunctional nerd or weirdo in a commercial film. When Jeff Chang is not intoxicated, he looks and sounds like some of the Chinese-American friends I had in college. However, the picture does not spend enough time focusing on his thoughts and feelings toward attending medical school. Instead, the picture relies on showing his father, Dr. Chang (François Chau), looking strict and mean. It is easy and convenient. Writer-directors Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, missed a chance to really connect with Asian-Americans who are pressured into pursuing a career in medicine. Perhaps it is due to the fact that it is not a pretty subject to tackle, not digestible enough for a comedy.
The majority of the humor involves Miller and Casey running around campus in the attempt to get the birthday boy home so he can get some rest. I enjoyed the scenes with the Latina sorority, a visit to Jeff Chang’s former dorm, and the exchanges between Miller and Casey. Teller portrays a motormouth quite well and Astin has a charming quality about him–a nice mix between shyness and self-assurance. It is important that we see why they are friends even though their relationship has hit a rough spot.
Like the lack of depth with Jeff Chang’s attitude toward a future that has been chosen for him, the tension between Miller and Casey is not explored enough. When the camera keeps still and simply shows the two young adults revealing to each other what they feel and why they feel that way, there is an honesty in their pain. I ended my relationship with one of my best friends in high school during freshman year of college. The familiar “You’ve changed” line is thrown a couple of times here. What does that phrase mean to the person who utters it and to the one who receives it? If any screenplay chooses to go down that route, it should be willing to go all the way or else it shortchanges the viewers.
The most predictable subplot involves Casey and Nicole (Sarah Wright), a sorority girl and a friend of Jeff Chang’s. The performers look good together but the script does not give them a chance. When the potential romance is at the forefront, the film slows severely. I detested their attempt at flirting so much that I missed the crazy boozing.
“21 & Over” has the potential to really make a difference: combining a night of partying and looking closely on issues regarding choices in terms of friendship, furthering one’s education, and pursuing a career. Alas, it settles for something less. It does not surprise me because not every movie has the ambition to make an impact.