Skylar Astin on Being the Moral Compass in ’21 & Over’

WRITER’S NOTE: This interview took place back in 2013.

Skylar Astin has had the privilege of entertaining us onstage in the Tony Award-winning musical “Spring Awakening” and onscreen in movies like “Hamlet 2” where he sang the song “Raped in the Face” and “Pitch Perfect” in which he appeared opposite Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson. Now he’s starring in “21 and Over,” the comedy which marks the directorial debut of “The Hangover” screenwriters Jon Lucas and Scott Moore. Astin plays Casey who quickly proves to be the moral compass the other main characters need to survive the mess they end up getting caught in.

I got to catch up with Astin while at the “21 and Over” press conference held at the Saddle Ranch Chop House off of Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. Now when it comes to college comedies like this one, most actors would prefer to play the character who is wild and crazy and comes across as the life of the party. Casey, however, is exactly the opposite of that even though he gets into as much trouble as his friends do. Still, Astin saw the benefits of playing such a level headed and grounded character in this film.

Skylar Astin: “You’ve got to have a moral compass of the movie and you got to like steer the ship a little. It’s cool that we all got our opportunity to be funny though.”

One pivotal scene in “21 and Over” has Astin and his co-star Miles Teller walking around campus wearing nothing but a tube sock over their privates. Now this could not have been a very comfortable scene to do, especially when you have a lot of people on set looking at you and wondering how much time you spent at the gym. Astin talked in detail about he approached this scene in the film which was filmed in Seattle, Washington.

Skylar Astin: “Funny enough, it was supposed to be approached very delicately. We were told that it was going to be a closed set and that it was gonna be the warmest day of the shoot. It turns out that it’s freezing, everyone’s there, and actually at our first costume fitting they just had a sock and a little underneath sock to keep everything in place and they’re like ‘here’s your fitting!’ At first, we had a moment of where it was like fight or flight, and I think I was just like ‘let’s just do it man. We have to do it eventually.’ I just de-robed and was like this is everything I got. I don’t think I was like proud, but I just had to play the role of being okay with it. I had the idea of making the whole crew where just socks and they didn’t oblige, especially the women, but it worked out thankfully.”

In the film, Astin and Teller take their best friend from high school, Jeff Chang (played by Justin Chon), to celebrate his 21st birthday in an appropriately drunken style. Now the really good actors are able to draw on their own experiences when playing the role, and we couldn’t help but wonder if Astin has been through similar nights in his own life. It was actually a bit surprising to hear the similarities he shares with Casey.

Skylar Astin: “Personally for me, my younger brother is my best friend and my partner in crime and I’ve definitely had several nights that had the spirit of this movie. I’ve always been the one that has a good time, but at the end of the bender it’s like ‘both of our phones are dead and we both have to call our parents and tell them we’re alive.’ That’s kind of always been my responsibility so I can relate to the feeling of just being a little irritable on those nights but also letting loose and have a good time. There is a little bit of Casey in me, but I don’t think I’m as much of an over thinker though. I always try to draw from personal experiences and my own personality whenever I play a role, and it’s not hard to play a role that close to my age, close to home and in a movie that I would go see if I wasn’t in it.”

Working with two different directors on the same film must seem challenging as this is typically a one-person job. What if one director tells you to do one thing and the other director instructs you to do the exact opposite? Where do you draw the line? Astin, however, said both Lucas and Moore were on the same page as they had written the screenplay together and have been friends for many years. As a result, there was never any conflict between either of them.

Skylar Astin: “What they have in common is that they are both the writers so it comes directly from one vessel. That’s always really great as an actor to have that wealth of knowledge coming from two voices. For me, I loved the different kinds of conversations that I would have with each one. Since I had a love story on top of the funny moments, there were different kind of conversations like the leading man type of thing I would have with Moore and to be more sincere in certain moments, and then Lucas was great because he was giving me jokes every five minutes. So, I had this well-rounded voice coming from two different people. They worked together so well, and they almost know this age better than I do and I’m closer to it. It’s kind of crazy.”

For a film filled with such drunken debauchery as “21 and Over,” Skylar Astin proves to be the most well-rounded person these characters need to get them through the night. It is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

‘The Hangover Part III’ is Infinitely Depressing When it Should Be Funny

The Hangover Part III movie poster

The Hangover Part III” is a serious disappointment. I am not even sure it is meant to be comedy considering how dark and depressing the material is. After the spirited debauchery of the previous two films, and I have no problem defending the second, director Todd Phillips and company try to do something different instead of giving us the same old thing which is commendable, but what we get is a far too serious action movie, and not a very good one at either. While the previous two films were a lot of fun, this one is dark and largely depressing, and the laughs are few and far in between. What the hell went wrong here?

The movie starts with Alan (Zach Galifianakis) on a downward spiral as he ends up buying a giraffe for no reason other than he can, and it ends up getting accidentally decapitated while he drives it home. The stress of this crazy incident ends up leading Alan’s father, Sid (Jeffrey Tambor), to have a fatal heart attack, and at the funeral it is revealed that Alan has been off of his medication for a long time. This brings the “Wolfpack” of Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms) and Doug (Justin Bartha) back together as they stage an intervention and encourage Alan to go to a rehab facility in Arizona to get help. Alan agrees to go, but only if the Wolfpack will go with him.

But while on their drive to Arizona, they are captured and kidnapped by Black Doug (Mike Epps, reprising his role from the first film) and his boss, drug kingpin Marshall (John Goodman). It turns out Alan’s old friend Leslie Chow (Ken Jeong) has stolen $21 million in gold from Marshall, and he wants it back. Chow, at the movie’s start, has just escaped from prison and Alan, against his better judgment, has stayed in touch with him despite all the bad things he put him, Phil and Stu through. As a result, Marshall holds onto Doug and orders the three of them to find Chow and bring him back to him. If they fail to do so, he will kill Doug. Great setup for a comedy, huh?

The great thing about the two previous “Hangover” movies was how we were every bit as intrigued as the characters were in finding out what happened to them the night before, and we shared in their discoveries with a great, delirious glee. With this third movie, you get the sense none of them want to be dealing with anymore of these shenanigans and, as a result, neither do we. All the fun has gone out the window, and what we are left with is a dreary road movie which Phillips and his co-writer Craig Mazin were under the mistaken impression they could mine comedy out of.

One major mistake made in “The Hangover Part III” is the filmmakers give certain minor characters from the previous films get far too much screen time this time around. This is especially the case with Chow who we first see escaping a dark and grimy prison at the movie’s start. In small doses, Chow is a riot to watch and Jeong is a very gifted comedy actor, but this time the character overstays his welcome and quickly becomes an unlikable prick with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. There is nothing more to Chow than him raising hell, getting high on cocaine and deceiving everyone around him whether they are friend or foe, and he comes across as a needless irritation in this sequel. Just try to laugh when Chow smothers a cocaine-fed rooster to death, I dare you.

Galifianakis also gets more screen time in this one as Alan, and this proves to be another major mistake. As funny as he can be when given the right material, his shtick as Alan has now worn out its welcome. Even when he has moments of genuine sweetness, they are wrecked by the character’s obliviousness to proper human etiquette. When “The Hangover” first came out, Galifianakis came across as one of the more original comedic actors we had seen in a long time. How sad it is to see his talents squandered in his tepid reprisal of his most famous characters thus far.

As for Cooper and Helms, they just seem to be going through the motions here as their characters have little in the way of growth or depth. Cooper hit a career high with his brilliant performance in “Silver Linings Playbook” and an even bigger one with his remake of “A Star is Born,” and Helms has been endlessly hilarious in “The Office” and various other projects. But “The Hangover Part III” proves to be a big waste of their time and talents, and you get the feeling after a while they really don’t want to be in this sequel at all.

Was there anything funny going on in “The Hangover Part III” at all? Yeah, there were a few chuckles here and there. Comedic powerhouse Melissa McCarthy shows up in a cameo as pawn shop owner Cassie, and her scenes with Galifianakis succeeded in putting a smile on my face during a movie I found myself mostly frowning at. It is also great to see Heather Graham back as Jade, Stu’s escort-wife, and it allows Alan to have a sweet reunion with the baby he befriended in the first film. There is also a post-credits sequence which has the Wolfpack up to no good again, and it makes you believe Phillips and company would have been better off recycling the same old story for another movie like they did with “The Hangover Part II.”

I saw “The Hangover Part III” at an early morning screening where there were about five or six other people in the audience. I think I heard them laugh only once or twice. I shudder to think of what a sold out audience would have sounded like during this movie. There was a lot of talent involved in the making of this eagerly awaited sequel, but what we ended up with instead is an epic fail of a comedy. Seriously, few things in this life are more infinitely depressing than a comedy which does not make you laugh much, if at all.

By the way, the next time you are thinking of having a character sing Nine Inch Nail’s “Hurt” at a karaoke bar for comedic effect, don’t.

* out of * * * *

 

‘The Hangover’ is Still a Blast to Watch

The Hangover movie poster

The best way for me to describe “The Hangover” is that it is wicked funny. Not once are the filmmakers ever afraid to break any particular taboos, and its setup is ingenious. While part of me wishes that I got to see it before the hype machine exploded and went into overdrive, this movie proved to be one of the best times I had at a theater back in 2009.

“The Hangover” stars Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis, and Justin Bartha as a group of guys who are on their way to spend a fun filled weekend in Las Vegas, Nevada. The groom, Doug Billings (Justin Bartha), is only a couple of days from becoming a married man, and his close friends and soon-to-be brother in law Alan Garner (Zach Galifianakis) take him out on the town to show him the time of his life while he is still a free man. They celebrate this moment together on the top of Caesar’s Palace where they are staying for the night with a couple shots of Jägermeister, toasting to an evening they will never forget. But it is no surprise that they do, and they have to retrace their steps in order to escape the craziness of their sudden situation.

Todd Phillips, who previously directed Will Ferrell to the Streakers Hall of Fame in “Old School,” uses “The Hangover” to continue his exploration of the lives of men who just cannot seem to grow up. Phil Wenneck (Bradley Cooper) is a schoolteacher, a married man and a father, and yet he seems the most eager of the four guys to live life to the max, free of all obligations. Stu Price (Ed Helms) treats this as an opportunity to escape his girlfriend of several years, who can never stand to have him kiss her I might add, and trick her into believing he is actually going to wine country in Napa County. For Alan Garner (Zach Galifianakis), this is just another place where he can be his usual socially maladjusted self as he is the man child character who easily creeps people out regardless of whether or not he realizes it.

By putting us in the vantage point of Phil, Stu and Alan, “The Hangover” turns into an unpredictable comedy as we go along with these three men and discover what shenanigans they ended up getting themselves Looking back, I am not sure how much these events would stand up to logical scrutiny, but this movie is so much fun, WHO CARES?! It is not like we are watching a “Saw” movie for crying out loud! What I love about “The Hangover” is how it keeps building up from one utterly bizarre situation to another, and just when you think things can’t get any worse, they do.

I refuse to spend this review ruining the best parts of the movie for you, so let us just get to the talent involved. Bradley Cooper got a great opportunity to shed his bully image which he perfected in such movies as “Wedding Crashers.” Well actually, he did not permanently shed it here as his character gets people to do things they would not otherwise do under normal circumstances. But his role here in “The Hangover” succeeded in breaking him out of his typecasting dilemma of being the snobbish bully as he gives this movie its coolest character.

Ed Helms has appeared on the American version of “The Office” and was a correspondent “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart. As Stu Price, he gives us this movie its resident wimpy nerd character, a common stereotype in comedies. Indeed, any actor in this role could just get away with simply playing the character as a pussy-whipped bitch with the shy and awkward smiles, letting the glasses define them on the surface to where they are easily identifiable, and wearing tidy clothes in the most inappropriate of venues. The fact Helms never stoops to playing all these behaviors and appearances makes his performance come off really well. We have a good idea from the start of where Stu will end up by the movie’s end, but Helms takes him from being a wimp to a stronger man in a very believable way, and he makes Stu ever so endearing as a result.

Hey wait a second… Let’s talk about the sexiest character in “The Hangover.” She is an escort and exotic dancer named Jade, and she is played by irresistible Heather Graham. It has now been a many years since she burned herself into our collective consciousness as Rollergirl in “Boogie Nights,” and I was thrilled to see her here. No one should forget what a great actress she is, and many projects she has appeared in over the years have squandered her talent. The Hangover” shows she has not lost an ounce of her talent and never will. After all these years, she is still an actress who deserves your attention.

As Alan Garner, Zach Galifianakis gives us someone whose sanity seems to be quite questionable, and what he says about himself hints at just how screwed up he really is. You can only guess at what kind of character he really is, and the rub there is what you say about him could end up saying more about you. Alan Garner turns out to be one of the more unpredictable characters in movies to where you almost live in fear of what he might do next, and this is even if he has you laughing your ass off throughout. The way he bonds with these guys is anything but healthy.

In addition, “The Hangover” features some great cameos throughout. Seeing Mike Tyson rock out to Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight” is a comic highlight. I also loved Jeffrey Tambour who is always a deadpan delight in everything he does, and as Alan’s father, Sid Garner, he personifies the knowledge of how what goes on in Vegas really needs to stay there, seriously. And Ken Jeong, very memorable as a doctor in “Knocked Up,” is a gas as crime boss Mr. Chow.

“The Hangover” is not politically correct to put it mildly, but in the end, this is just a movie you should sit back and have fun watching. Years after its release, it is still a blast to take in.

* * * ½ out of * * * *