I was fortunate enough to catch a free advance screening of 21 & Over. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it and found myself laughing throughout the movie—no seriously. I thought it was funny, thought the cast had great chemistry, and thought the movie had a warm, heartfelt message about growing up that I found that I could personally relate to, especially since I’m a recent college graduate and new adult (that’s the term they use nowadays.)
Of course if you aren’t into drunk guys, their bromance, and their crazy hijinks a la The Hangover, than this movie probably isn’t for you. For me, I thought it was fun and I had an overall great time (and I was lucky that the screening had a surprise Q&A with the cast!)
I’m aware there are concerns about how Asian-Americans are portrayed in the film. After all, it’s by the writers of The Hangover and there was quite a bit of controversy over Ken Jeong’s character. I want to relieve people of their concerns and also give my light thoughts. Minor spoilers at best.
To start, the movie’s marketing promotes those stereotypes throughout the trailer and the summary:
When Straight-A college student Jeff Chang’s two best friends take him out for his 21st birthday on the night before an important medical school interview, what was supposed to be a quick beer becomes a night of humiliation, over indulgence and utter debauchery.
The trailer and the introduction of the movie is no different: two charming, sly white savior dudes drag their nerdy Asian friend and teach him how to lighten up and party. Groan.
Or so that’s what the filmmakers want you to think.
The marketing and the trailer is a trap. It’s a lot more deceiving than you think—but I say that’s good thing. Miller (Miles Teller) and Casey (Skylar Astin), as well as the audience, have pre-conceived perceptions about their friend Jeff Chang (Justin Chon) based on racial stereotypes—that Jeff Chang is this bookish, bright Asian kid with an overbearing Tiger Dad. He’s a stereotype. The token Asian friend.
“But remember, there are two ways to dehumanize someone: by dismissing them, and by idolizing them.” - David Wong
But throughout the movie as they get to learn more about their friend’s experience in college, they realize they were wrong. They, as well as the audience, learn that he isn’t as perfect student as they think he is. Their perception of their friend is torn down and built again, in turn, humanizing the character.
Racial humor is used, yes. Surprisingly, for the most part, it is not the butt of the joke—it’s the characters’ own ignorance. And often times the stereotypes are subverted rather than perpetuated.
[I would go deeper, but then I would be entering heavy spoiler territory. I might do that at a later time.]
I was a little disappointed (while not surprised) that Justin Chon’s character didn’t play as big of a role I thought he was going to in comparison to his co-stars (Don’t get me wrong, he still has a prominent role.) Nonetheless, the writers actually fleshed out his character beyond the token Asian friend—he’s just one of the guys. It isn’t perfect, but overall, it was definitely a step forward than a step back and showed that the Asian-American experience isn’t all uniform as mainstream America wants us to believe.