21 and Overis what would have happened if The Hangover met Project X on a college campus and tossed all sense of direction, not to mention political correctness, to the wind. It’s dumb, it’s gross, it’s implausible—but as far as booze-chugging comedies go, I’ve seen much, much worse.
This gem of idiocy follows three college seniors who are old buddies from high school. Miller (Miles Teller) and Casey (Skylar Astin) pay a visit to Jeff Chang (known always by both his first and last name, played by Justin Chon) at his picturesque campus in the Pacific Northwest. Miles and Casey are going to take Jeff Chang out for a few drinks to celebrate his 21st birthday, and they will obviously get him back home in time for his important medical school interview the next morning, right??
Peter Hartlaub of The San Francisco Chronicle points out the movie’s forced suspension of disbelief, via a penchant for slapstick violence: “In real life,” he writes, “Jeff Chang would have died tragically four or five times.” True, but what’s refreshing here is not the characters’ reckless antics, but the fact that in this movie, “having a good time” and “extreme alcohol abuse” are not (necessarily) synonymous.
The majority of these guys’ ridiculous misbehaviors – flirting, stealing, breaking into a sorority, tricking girls in to making out with each other, jumping out of windows, accidentally spooking a live buffalo that tramples the pep rally – could just as well have been committed by sober kids on an all-night troublemaking bender. Anyone who has ever had straight-edge friends knows that kids do not need to be wasted to get crazy. Even their drunk driving is a tame relief from cliché; they tootle around campus on a golf cart going two miles per hour.
Plus, 21 and Over also draws a distinct line between Miller’s and Casey’s relatively clear-eyed partying and Jeff Chang’s unquestionable alcohol abuse; Jeff is either unconscious or delirious for most of the movie, and submits us to a slow-motion vomit montage that may be the greatest anti-alcohol public service announcement of all time. Jeff Chang’s drinking habits are anything but trend-setting, and we soon learn that they are motivated by much bigger concerns than an impending med school interview; Jeff has been popping pills, failing out of college, is alienated from his strict father, and recently tried to commit suicide. His risky behavior has deep roots, and something needs to change—that much is clear, even to Jeff’s doofy sidekicks.
Unlike the characters in its high-school-age predecessors like Superbad and Project X, the hooligans of 21 and Over can legally drink. But these college-kid caricatures, especially Jeff Chang, prove that legal drinking is certainly no better, safer, or healthier than underage consumption. In the real world, where more than 40 percent of college students binge drink, it’s worth highlighting – even in as low-brow a vehicle as this movie – the underlying mental and emotional problems that are at the root of such a widespread behavior. There are many more Jeff Changs out there than society likes to admit.
This particular Jeff Chang (spoiler alert) doesn’t go to his med school interview, but he does reconnect with his best friends, those good-hearted and surprisingly articulate crazies Miller and Casey, who believe in Jeff enough that he actually starts to believe in himself in the end. So there you have it: this movie is ludicrous and predictable, but it isn’t a “get-stupid-drunk-and-then-you’ll-look-cool” sort of movie. Rather, it’s a “take-chances-and-maybe-you’ll-pull-it-off” sort of movie. Some of those chances, like standing up to a tyrannical parent and following your heart, are infinitely valuable. Some, like that buffalo…not so much.