Film Reviews

21 & Over Just Dares You to Get Offended

Guy humor is always with us, kind of like the poor. For as long as cavemen have been etching fart jokes into the walls of caves, women have been rolling their eyes, as they didn't yet have the language tools to whip up outraged essays for Jezebel. Still, given the online furor he instigated, you'd think beleaguered Oscar host Seth MacFarlane had invented a whole new vocabulary for crass joking. These days, we want our humor edgy and fresh and intelligent, but also timely and timeless, and it must appeal to our deepest subconscious impulses in a way that's never, ever offensive to either sex or any racial group or political party. Got it?

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It's hard to know what to laugh at anymore — the only guideline, maybe, is that we'll know it when we see it. And Jon Lucas and Scott Moore's guy-humor extravaganza 21 & Over isn't quite it. 21 & Over, in which three college guys set out for a night of drinking and, they hope, debauchery, is filled with crude gags that almost tip into the red on the bad-taste-ometer: One of its characters, in a drunken stupor, eats a tampon — unused, thank God, as this isn't a Catherine Breillat movie. The trio crash a sorority house filled with tough, angry Latinas — stereotype alert! One of the guys tosses his cookies while riding a mechanical bull; his puke spins into the air in slow motion, a visual symphony of pearlescent beige droplets. There's even an uptight Asian girl who plays field hockey — stereotype alert number two! You can almost see the minds of the filmmakers working: Someone out there has just got to take umbrage at 21 & Over — please.

But the most offensive thing about the picture — the directorial debut of the guys who wrote The Hangover — is how inoffensive it is. 21 & Over pretends to take chances even as it timidly retraces the same dance steps we've already seen in movies like, well, The Hangover. Three former high school besties, having gone off to separate colleges some three years earlier, reconnect on the night the youngest of them finally turns 21. The leads are appealing enough in their hapless, just-of-age way. Casey (Skylar Astin, of Pitch Perfect) and Miller (Miles Teller, who gave a terrific performance in Rabbit Hole and is also a veteran of another recent guys-out-of-control comedy, last year's Project X) show up at Northern Pacific University to surprise their pal Jeff Chang (Justin Chon, of the Twilight movies), hoping to kidnap him for a night of birthday brewskis. But JeffChang — his buds long ago having merged his first and last into that catchy uniname — has an important med-school interview in the morning, and his glowering doctor-dad (François Chau) has showed up to escort him. Somehow, Casey and Miller persuade JeffChang to go out for just one little beer, which will eventually lead to shots of chartreuse — or something similarly nasty — being slurped out of a really fat guy's navel.

Mayhem ensues, but as any woman writing about guy humor will tell you, it's really all about male insecurity. And 21 & Over definitely is about male insecurity. These kids, we learn, are facing big life issues: Casey, the sweet, responsible one, is getting cold feet over the cookie-cutter finance career he's headed for, especially after he meets a free-spirit Breck-girl blonde (played by Parks and Recreation's Sarah Wright). Miller, the bright, wise-cracking schemer, has, unbeknownst to his friends, dropped out of school altogether. And the smartest, if most reserved, of them all, JeffChang is the Asian kid who — anti-stereotype alert! — is lousy at science and has no desire whatsoever to go to medical school. (The movie's best line, funny in a rueful way, is JeffChang's response when his friends urge him to just tell his father outright that he really doesn't want to be a doctor: "Oh, my God, you guys, that is so white.")

21 & Over has a few mildly amusing gags, as when that Latina sorority ultimately takes its revenge; the scene also addresses the homoerotic subtext of buddy comedies head-on and face-forward, in a way that's surprisingly unexploitive. Like its older brothers The Hangover movies, it puts lots of male humiliation right up front. (You really don't want to know how JeffChang ends up with a teddy bear Super Glued to his penis.) Perhaps that's a way of leavening the purportedly transgressive humor these movies trade in — it's as if the protagonists are saying, "We can be as crude as we want because, really, we're hurting inside."

But the movie rambles in a way that dilutes any possibility of edgy discomfort. Lucas and Moore have good control over the timing within the gags; it's the spaces between them that stretch out awkwardly. You can't hate 21 & Over, and you can't laugh at it. The most you can do is just pity it for not being as outrageous as it thinks it is. And as any guy will tell you, being pitied is the ultimate humiliation.

Great humor, even when it's wrapped in intelligent bohemian's clothing, à la Lenny Bruce, still comes from the id, which means it's bound to offend someone, sometime. Plus, it's more than okay for guys to make comedies about hurting inside. But there's one hitch: The movies have to be funny. That goes for supposedly female-centric movies like Bridesmaids, too — if the alternative to incessant fart and boob jokes is Melissa McCarthy taking a crap in the sink, I'll take the farts and boobs.

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Stephanie Zacharek was the principal film critic at the Village Voice from 2013 to 2015. She is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and of the National Society of Film Critics. In 2015 Zacharek was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism.

Her work also appeared in the publications of the Voice’s film partner, Voice Media Group: LA Weekly, Denver Westword, Phoenix New Times, Miami New Times, Broward-Palm Beach New Times, Houston Press, Dallas Observer and OC Weekly.

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