21 & Over is proudly billed as being “from the writers of The Hangover.” It’s not a bad pedigree as comedies go, as The Hangover remains one of the most pleasant surprises of the last few years: a film that balanced its predilection for shock-value gags and raunchy laughs with tight plotting and strong character chemistry. But writers Jon Lucas and Scott Moore didn’t seem to apply the same lessons to 21 & Over, resulting in a film that mostly goes for the cheapest of laughs, often at the cost of the humanity of its characters.
Miller and Casey (Miles Teller and Skylar Astin) are at Northern University visiting their high school best friend Jeff Chang (Justin Chon) for his 21st birthday. They urge him to go out and have a drink, in spite of the fact that he has a medical school interview the following morning. What was supposed to be just one beer turns into a bar crawl, and soon enough, Jeff Chang is passed out. Miller and Casey soon realize they don't know where Jeff Chang lives, and they have to scramble around campus to find his address and get him home before his dad arrives to pick him up for his interview.
If we’re going to be reductive about it, it’s really just The Hangover with college kids. The stakes are much lower and the gags tend to be a lot more juvenile. Instead of going on a sprawling adventure of self-discovery in a strange land, the friends just get into hijinks on a campus. They play drinking games and anger sorority girls. They fend with bullies and wrestle with decisions that aren’t really all that big. Through it all, the characters never become engaging or interesting, their antics feeling entirely too artificial and contrived.
The film does offer a hint of something deeper going on, with the characters slowly discovering that their friend Jeff Chang isn’t as put together as they remember him. But that thread pretty much fizzles out and gives way to the much less intriguing drama between friends who just don’t call each other enough. Once again, it’s a question of stakes. These issues don’t seem like a very big deal in the long run, and having these bland, broad characters hash them out doesn’t make for compelling cinema.
Of the three leads, Justin Chon gives the most admirable performance. He commits wholeheartedly to the physical comedy, which can get pretty crazy at times. He has a fairly understated presence that lends the film some grounding. It’s too bad that he spends much of the film passed out. The other two leads, Miles Teller and Skylar Astin, skew broader, going big for laughs but failing to achieve any sort of warmth. There isn’t a whole lot to say about the rest of the cast, who mostly play some sort of easy college movie archetype.
The best one can say about 21 & Over is that it is a lesser Hangover. But even given that lowered criteria, it still isn’t really worth a whole lot. Because if you just wanted to see a lesser Hangover, you might as well see The Hangover Part II. That movie already featured the diminishing returns of the formula, trading in some of the heart for a greater succession of shock gags and raunch. But it’s still a lot more entertaining than 21 & Over, owing to its genuine sense of danger and solid cast. With that movie already existing, this is little more than a redundancy.