The problem with comedy is that it depends on so many subtle factors. Each of the vital elements – script, cast, direction, editing – must be both strong in itself and also interconnected with each other. When it works, it’s a beautiful thing that lifts the spirits and throws smiles around freely. When it doesn’t, when each element fails individually and disrupts the whole, you’re left with a bitty, unstructured mess that leaves an extremely sour aftertaste. Unfortunately, 21 And Over is one of the sourest comedies I’ve seen.
The premise is one you’ll be familiar with if you’ve ever seen any film starring a group of college kids that include an achiever, a sweary idiot and a introvert with a big day approaching. Miller, Casey and Jeff Chang (who is always referred to in full) are three high school best friends who have found College has pulled them apart in more ways than just geography. On the day of Jeff Chang’s 21st birthday – an important date in America that finally releases alcohol from the shackles of secrecy and fake IDs – Miller and Casey arrive at their old friend’s residence to treat him to birthday hijinx. However, Jeff Chang has a lifechanging interview for Medical School set up by Harsh Asian Father, and refuses to go out so as to be fresh and ready by 7am. Of course, his resolve disappears and extreme drunkenness soon leads to a race against the clock to get Jeff Chang home in time, incorporating spanking, punching and nudity along the way. Basically, it’s The Hangover – The Early Years.
Which would be fine, if the constituent parts amounted to anything. There are no new stories, it’s true, but the way in which stories are told has the ability to excite through creative choices. This narrative electricity is wholly absent in 21 And Over.
One of the main issues is that the three main protagonists don’t have any kind of connection on screen. Compared to something like Superbad, their relationship never feels genuine, or that it stretches past the words on the page. Maybe it’s the casting, maybe it’s the heavy-handed direction and script; something seems to be holding the actors back, even though they’ve each proven very capable in their other films. Having the heart of the movie so unbelievable makes their journey together barely interesting.
The narrative structure and scripting is equally frustrating. Full of convenient jumps and side-steps, the main characters often behave in a way that does not endear them to the audience but instead leaves us scratching our heads at the way it unfolds. Lines are predictable and practical rather than cheeky and inspired, while characterisation is a standard journey from A to B. Set-ups and scenarios are garish and unattractive, the movie happy to propagate the myth that US Colleges are mostly full of flashing girls and dickhead jocks. It’s very hard to connect with a story that constantly dissuades personal connection.
It’s technically a mess, too. Apart from the previously mentioned ineffective direction, at some points the editing and ADR is so bad that the flow of scenes completely breaks down. Full of dubbed lines over non-moving mouths and jarring drops in pace, it’s odd to imagine how it was not corrected before release.
It’s not a total disaster, though. One or two of the lines break a smile, and chief Douchebag, Randy, has a couple of male followers who are genuinely hilarious in their literal narrative of his every action. More of this kind of curveball humour would have added much to the blandness.
By the end, you find yourself frustrated at the lack of imagination in the turn of events. The conclusion, a seemingly perfect opportunity for Harsh Asian Father to redeem himself in the face of his suicidal son’s newfound honesty, simply ends with straightforward violence and parental rejection. However, this squandered opportunity just matches what has been happening for the previous ninety minutes, and so the viewer is just left with rolling eyes at the missed potential.
If you feel the need to watch this kind of against-the-clock College comedy, there are much better titles to choose from. In fact, just watch Ferris Bueller’s Day Off again, even if you’ve seen it before. I guarantee you’ll have a much better time, and anyway, you’ve seen everything 21 And Over has to offer many times before in much better ways. Avoid.