Monday, March 4, 2013

21 and Over

There's the murmur of a nugget of something to 21 and Over, the latest I-just-want-to-party, boys will be boys childishness in the reunion of three high school friends as they're about to complete college with the realization that times have changed and things aren't quite the same as they used to be.  A facet of coming of age that's inherently believable when your best friends start to grow up.  It's a slight nugget of something that's hardly tapped into for this is but another in the canon of R-rated frat boy comedies where thoughtfulness has little place-- pitched as a junior league Hangover by way of Superbad, which in concept isn't terrible, just highly unoriginal.  The film is further hedged into reductive territory as it was written and directed by The Hangover scribes Jon Lucas and Scott Moore and commences as three former besties join the celebrate the drunken cornerstone of ones twenty-first birthday, setting out on an epic night of depravity.  As a high concept that's all well and good, and as many a youth can attest with the blurred specters of entitling the rights that age bequeaths, not an terrible setup for raucous shenanigans.  21 and Over aims for an all in good fun night for the ages, however, must it be so racist, sexist and homophobic in the process.

Miller (Miles Teller) meets up with old school pal Casey (Skylar Astin) at a Pacific Northwest college town in order to celebrate the ritual of getting hammered with newly of age birthday boy Jeff Chang (Justin Chon.)  Miller is the most gregarious of the group-- that friend from high school who's still relieving those glory years without wanting to remove himself from the party, whereas Casey has grown into a junior executive, primed for a successful future and far removed from the silly shenanigans of the past.  It's worth nothing that Teller and Astin are both charming and engaging young actors and both are nearly able to somewhat transcend the drab predictability of 21 and Over's frat boy formula fun house. 

Teller, who spits his dialogue out like a pervy screwball comedy hero, in particular deserves some sort of special praise for managing to come across somewhat likable despite the obnoxious and endless foul that said dialogue consists of reads a true find.  A young actor that first made an impression as the sensitive, but troubled teenager in Rabbit Hole, and who is no stranger to sodden underachieving teenage drudge as evident in last years found footage party flick Project X clearly deserves a stronger outfit than this.  And Astin, who appeared in last falls hit Pitch Perfect, manages an even-keeled finesse to his boy next door wannabe yuppie character expresses a study alertness that's equally deserving of something stronger.  Like most frat-guy odyssey pictures, it's a particularly shallow place for anyone of color, or female, or not a straight white guy, and it's a shame that Chon is given the shaft of a character that's disturbingly and offensively, a punchline.  Still, as in movies of like this, we all just want to party, right?

Trouble is that Jeff, a straight-A student with medical school ambitions has a huge interview early the next day and his strict, judgmental father is hard pressed to let his old high school pals take him out.  As the script goes, and as boys will be boys go, it takes little coaxing and soon their off and running-- bar hopping, carousing, reminiscing and getting into a whole lick of trouble, all in the hopes of getting away with a little murder before all goes back to normal with Jeff safely and soberly at his early morning interview.  Along the way, the three come to realize that, as they wan down their college years, that perhaps they aren't as close as they thought they were.  Of course, that takes a backseat as Jeff starts urinating and vomiting on the lucky bar patrons (mostly female) in his path.  Jeff becomes thoroughly smashed and nearly unconscious for most of the film as the boys begin their epic Dude, Where's My Car?-riffed journey to get the boy home; a location in which no one knows.

And so 21 and Over travails a well-trodden path of debauchery, as Miller and Casey, dragging their passed out friend, around scour the pits of genre conventions.  Along the way, there's the obligatory debasing of women-- in this case a sorority made up of Latina women, needless destruction and customary dated stereotyping that's disguised as humor.  There's also a dark undercurrent of sideline character behavior that drags the wannabe happy-go-lucky film into a dark and atonal inappropriate place-- as in why does Jeff carry a gun?  If there's were a thoughtful dissection of coming of age, that would be another subject, but this a party-all-night exaggeration of youth and it feels equally offensive in tantamount to the racism, sexism and homophobia on display.  Worst offense of all is that none of which is particularly funny.

While it may prove a moo point to beat a dumb, forgettable film such as this, there's something fishier here and in so many films of its ilk that present straight while males in situations that are loathsome, and often criminal, only to be left with the heartening message that they're not so bad after all-- just boys being boys goofing around-- their hearts are made with gold.  All the while Jeff, their curiously suspect Asian friend, gets dragged around the mud, thrown out of buildings and paraded around for constant comic amusement, as do the peripheral women (save for one, whose existence is all but to redeem one of the golden, straight white boys.)  As there must be, there's room for dated homophobia as well.  This is especially ugly and sordid in the rare moments of the film where Miller and Casey are subject to a ripely deserved comeuppance that's just a prolonged set piece to make a groaning nod at straight male insecurity.

21 and Over would be a different film (not necessarily a better one, mind you, but a different one) had for instance Chon exchanged parts with either Teller or Astin, or if one of the straight white guys/heroes been homosexual, or if there was perhaps a fourth, maybe female friend invited to be part of the mix.  It's the ugly insistence of the regimented frat guy value system that films like 21 and Over (and its dubious predecessor The Hangover) that marks the genre disarmingly exclusive and how it feels neutered and botched from rightly feeling like the coming of age of anyone.  There's nothing inherently wrong with an R-rated raunchy comedy, but there is something wrong when they all look and sound the same, and the laughs aren't there, but no one is allowed in on the joke to begin with.  D+

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