Photo: 21 and Over
I’m going to review this movie twice, from two angles. Neither view is particularly more important than the other -- but both are inseparable from how I feel about 21 and Over.
Part I: Reviewing the Movie as an Avid Movie-watcher and Armchair Critic
A quick glance at the trailer for 21 and Over will give off the following impression: that it is a comedy centered around a drunken night gone wildly, wildly wrong -- the latest in a movie family that includes the likes of Project X, The Hangover, and Superbad.
If that’s all you’re expecting when you fork over your 12 bucks, then you won’t be disappointed, because 21 and Over comes complete with all the hijinks and zaniness you might anticipate from a film in this genre. Three guys breaking into a sorority house, physical humor, gratuitous public nudity, a wild car chase, and an extended slow-motion sequence of Justin Chon projectile vomiting…yeah. You’ll get all of that hilarity, and a runaway buffalo, to boot. (Was I joking about that? You'll just have to see the movie and find out.)
As funny as those images may sound now, they aren’t even the true reasons why this movie is worth watching. No, what makes 21 and Over worth an hour and a half of your time and hard-earned money is how it manages to be much more than a comedy as well. At its core, what makes the film stand out is not its plot or its hilariously implausible situations (and it certainly is not its acting); any comedy can be funny, but not many can maintain the humor of drunken debauchery while giving viewers a thoughtful presentation of larger themes, too -- a thoughtfulness that does not at all appear in the film’s shallow 3 minute trailer.
College dropout Miller (Miles Teller), the Wall Street bound Casey (Skylar Astin), and middling student Jeff Chang (Justin Chon) all embody different trajectories for college students, and even as they embark on a night none of them will ever forget, the film makes plenty of room for each to honestly reflect on where they are in life, just months before their graduation. This results in some unexpectedly poignant realizations about growing older. All of this gives 21 and Over some meaningful depth beneath an otherwise crude, profanity-heavy exterior -- all part of a larger undercurrent of wonderful subversiveness throughout the film. (More on that below, though.)
In an already well-established and occasionally-stale genre, directors Jon Lucas and Scott Moore have managed to craft something funny, but also remarkably fresh and surprisingly introspective.
Go see it.
Got all that yet? Good. Now let’s go ahead and get into the other reason why I like this movie so much…
Part II: Reviewing the Movie as an Asian American Studies Minor
I wanted to hate 21 and Over, and I thought I would.
Having seen Hollywood stereotype Asian American males my whole life, you might easily understand why I was skeptical about this movie. The trailer didn’t exactly dispel my doubts, either, seeing as the only glimpses of Jeff Chang depict him as a nerd in dire need of a social life. In other words, there was every sign that 21 and Over would only continue the time-honored tradition of Asian American misrepresentation. And when the film’s first few minutes opened with Miller and Casey coming to throw Jeff Chang a 21st birthday party -- in large part to liberate him from the shackles of Chang’s Tiger Dad -- my brain couldn’t help but sigh in disgust. White saviors and overbearing Asian fathers? Could it get any more stereotypical?
Yet, I found myself quite wrong -- not more than a minute after that scene, Jeff Chang can be seen piping up angrily that his family has been in the United States for five generations, immediately invalidating any ideas viewers might have about his origins, and firmly establishing that he is essentially as American as either of his white co-stars.
Fresh off the boat? Not him.
This outburst is the first in a series of similar moments throughout the film, all of which act to destabilize the model minority stereotype that college-attending Asian Americans are normally viewed through. Without going into exhaustive detail about each one, here are a couple of those instances:
- Viewers eventually discover that Jeff Chang is not the straight-A student that many might assume, but rather, on the verge of failing out of college altogether -- a fact punctuated with the news that Chang is not tutoring in science, but being tutored. Miller and Casey are shocked at first, but over the course of the movie, finally understand that their Asian friend is not the flawless scholar they originally assumed.
- Chang is, at one point, admitted into the mental hospital at his university, and considering that he has a previous history there already, it is reasonable to interpret this as chipping away at the idea that Asian Americans are studying machines who have no feelings. Stress can clearly get to them, too, with our protagonist as proof of that.
- There are many, many scenes of Chang naked, including one in which his penis is actually shown, doing away with the idea that Asian American males are somehow less capable of sexuality -- or physiologically different -- than everyone else.
- Accused of driving with his eyes closed toward the end of the movie, the camera immediately cuts to a shot of Chang’s face, still in the middle of driving maniacally, but eyes wide open. The implications are multiple here -- first, that he is no “chinky-eyed” Asian, and second, that his terrible driving does not stem from being Asian.
Individually, these moments do not hold much weight or credence, but when examined together, they act to dissociate Jeff Chang from the socially inept bookworm that we are so used to seeing. Simply put, because of these moments, he more closely resembles an actual person -- and with so few nuanced or complicated Asian American characters in American media, this cannot be dismissed, no matter how minor it seems.
By portraying him the way they have, Jon Lucas and Scott Moore have begun an irreversible process -- one in which viewers can realize that the Asian American experience is not uniform. That we are not all geniuses, that we are not all immigrants, and that we suffer and flunk and fail like everyone else.
It is tough to predict the day when that will actually be understood by Americans as a whole, but that day cannot come without initial efforts like this.
Of course, I am not so foolish to believe that one well-crafted character invalidates years and years of misrepresentation and stereotypes. It doesn’t. But the presence of someone like Chang is a sure sign of progress in the way Asian Americans are represented in the media. No matter how small that progress might be, it is worth celebrating, because it marks another step forward.
Another step toward passing behind the velvet rope of ignorance, and one step closer to entering the club of mainstream acceptance.