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A Set Visit with the Gang from “21 and Over”

Imagine a college bar in a Pacific Northwest town and there’s a very outstanding chance that you’ll imagine a place almost exactly like Dantes in Seattle’s University Village section. The place has a rustic, slightly run-down, feeling countered by lots of colored lights, chalkboards full of bargains on bar food, specialty cocktails – most of which I wouldn’t let anywhere near my Drink of the Week posts – and cartoonish demon head sculptures mounted on the wall as if they’d been bagged in Nairobi by Colonel Blimp himself.

Now, imagine it’s September 2011 and you’re a broke-ass freelance entertainment writer in search of a day job, but nevertheless very happy to fly up the coast for a set visit and roundtable interview with the cast and writers/directors of “21 and Over.” So it was that I and a group of journos from online men’s magazines and humor sites had been ferried over from area hotels to watch a key bit of early action in the film being shot and, later, to meet with the talent.

One piece of additional good news was that the talent in question actually has some. The first film directed by the co-scripters of the sleeper megahit “The Hangover,” Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, “21 and Over” is hitting a theater near you March 1st after a somewhat delayed release. If you loved “The Hangover,” there’s a decent chance you’ll like “21 and Over,” even if that film was – in typical Hollywood style – somewhat heavily rewritten by a number of hands. For starters, it trades on a similar formula of bromantic mystery plus broad comedy played out by strong (but not overly expensive) comic talent. It’s a somewhat dumb, but occasionally hilarious low-brow effort anchored by a very funny and credible trio of young male actors with outstanding comic rapport, and a female lead who’s allowed to be a semi-believable human being for a change.

The plot involves a surprise out of town birthday visit which results in birthday boy Jeff Chang (Justin Chon) suffering an alcohol-induced near coma. Naturally, Jeff Chang – who’s full name is repeated with Charlie Brown-like regularity – has an important medical school interview the next day. Worse, neither wild-and-crazy instigator Miller (Miles Teller) nor literally buttoned-down Casey (Skylar Astin) can even remotely recall Jeff Chang’s Seattle address.

If you’re expecting the result to be a comic odyssey of debauchery and absurd hijinks that would almost certainly lead to a fatality in real life, you wouldn’t be wrong. If you’re looking for a gorgeous love interest in all of this, Sarah Wright does the honors as Nicole, a smart girl whose next foolish choice might be hooking up with prepster Casey.

Our set visit began with us doing what most people do, most of the time, on film sets. We waited, watching a short dialogue scene being filmed and drinking non-alcoholic beverages from craft services – or maybe it was beer from the bar, I can’t remember. (Probably not, but I can’t be sure. I would later have a brief comic odyssey of my own trying, unsuccessfully, to recover the lost voice recorder which held all of my notes from the set visit.)

If memory serves, we were told that one of the co-directors, Scott Moore, was off filming other material that day. That may have been a slightly big deal as Moore and Lucas have been working together for a long time, and “21 and Over” is their first shot at the directing big time. In fact, Lucas later expressed a bit of honest concern about the day, saying that he generally considered himself a decent “half a director.” Still, everything appeared to be going smoothly.

Eventually, things kicked up to a higher gear as we watched Justin Chon perform one of the film’s many physical comedy lowlights while being filmed by Terry Stacey, a top-drawer cinematographer who has proven that comedies needn’t be visually flat with “50/50,” “Adventureland,” and 2003′s “American Splendor,” one of the best movies of the 21st century so far.

Standing not far behind Stacey, we watched from above as Chon – best known by his own description as “the Asian kid from ‘Twilight’” – mounted a mechanical bull, rode very briefly, and then upchucked in spectacular fashion. The upchucking was thanks to a mechanical device attached to Chon but, in classic practical effects style, hidden from the camera’s view.

The delicate part was that that effects gag was to be captured in extreme slow motion. In the finished film, the individual droplets of fake throw-up dance about in the air and the audience is grateful the film is neither in 3D nor Smell-O-Vision.

Soon enough, however, Chon – who clearly knows his way around physical action – was managing some very nice recoveries after staging his fall from the bull, and director of photography Stacey had mostly finished the shot. It was time for a break and some roundtable chats at the pizza joint across the street.

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