‘21 & Over’ could have been more than it is

By Gary Clift

“21 & Over” is a familiar sort of movie. It shows us college-aged kids out drinking and cavorting. And it has a Rite of Passage story, one where the central character or characters suddenly gain enough maturity to function as adults. But this time the story begins after the characters have already had their “American Graffiti” and “Super Bad” sorts of high school graduation passages.

Those experiences didn’t apparently prepare Miller (Miles Teller), Casey (Skylar Astin), and Jeff Chang (Justin Chon) for adult life. Miller dropped out of college. Casey dropped in so far he is spending his last undergraduate spring break taking an internship with a financial institution. And Jeff Chang—the most endearing thing about this movie is that he is always referred to by both names—has an interview to get into medical school on the morning after his twenty-first birthday.

The three old pals haven’t talked in a while, but Miller and Casey show up (unannounced) at Jeff Chang’s apartment to take him out for a celebratory night of drinking. Then his scary father shows up, warning them that the interview is essential to his son’s future.

Still, they go out for a beer. And one turns into many. Much of the movie is spent going, for example, from a bar with a mechanical bull (Jeff Chang vomits while riding it) to a bar with a long bar (Jeff Chang stands on it to urinate, swinging back and forth) to a “Tower of Power” party where Miller and Casey must win seven drinking games—quarters, beer pong, and so on—to get their intoxicated friend’s address so they can take him home—perhaps in the gator they borrowed from the college’s grounds crew.

They meet a female friend of Jeff Chang’s, Nichole, and Casey tries to impress her. Then they part company. But he remembers a couple of the letters of her sorority’s name. So when the Tower Master doesn’t have Jeff Chang’s address, they go to break into the nearest sorority using those two letters to seek Nichole.

She isn’t there. It is a “Latina Sisterhood,” for whatever that’s worth. The boys enter a room in which two scantily-clad pledges await ritual paddling. When it is discovered that the cricket bat swingers aren’t the pledge trainer, the boys have to run. They throw Jeff Chang from the second story bathroom window onto the tarp covering a swimming pool.

Then they seek Randy, Nichole’s yell leader beau who is hanging around a big spirit-warming bonfire. He turns out to be a brat they’ve already irritated with an errant dart throw made earlier in the evening. As our heroes escape by flashing a pistol of Jeff Chang’s, the school’s mascot bison gets loose and charges Randy from behind.

Dopers strip Jeff Chang and put a brassiere and a teddy bear on him. Then his pals save him from the police. But soon he’s in the hospital and under a suicide watch.

Which brings us to the serious business of the story. None of these guys is happy. Each has to learn something that will help him find a new way in life. The screenplay comes close to announcing this. Attempts at comedy stop for a bit. How can the movie clue each of them in all at once?

Perhaps because of its cast, I’m not sure “21 & Over” ever seems to be sympathetic enough that viewers laugh as much as they could or feel the danger as much as they should. Teller can be funny but isn’t someone we immediately like.  And Casey reminded me of Zeppo, the un-funny Marx brother. Chon is the find here, but he’s passed out during most of the film.

Ah well. Another evening on campus, what?

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