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Entries in Project X [2012] (1)

Monday
Mar052012

Project X (2012)

HD Entropy

We've seen this formula over and over and over again: a dweeby teenage boy throws a crazy party while his parents are away. He pines for the hottest girl in school--who will, of course, be in attendance--though he'll inevitably wind up with the unconventionally attractive girl he's known since kindergarten. Oh, and he's also saddled with two sociallly inept best friends who want nothing more in life than to get laid before graduation.

There are variations on this formula, usually involving the number of idiot friends and the technical detail of whether our scrawny hero hosts or merely attends the blow-out--but it's still a formula that probably should've died after Superbad came out.

Apparently, no one sent that memo to Hangover producer Todd Phillips or first-time director Nima Nourizadeh. Their new movie, Project X, is the premise's ninetieth iteration, as well as this decade's nine-thousandth found-footage-style movie--complete with a pre-story apology from Warner Brothers to everyone affected by its characters' actions.

So, how does one cope with a film they've seen hundreds of times? If it's as effective and hilarious as Project X, the solution involves nothing more than sitting back and absorbing the drunken-party movie to end all drunken-party movies. To be clear: I find the behavior presented here to be inexcusable and unpleasant to the extreme. If the creators' idea of modern teen life are even remotely accurate, I think it's time to seriously consider an American Battle Royale program. But if you leave all sense of propriety, morality, and hope for the future at the concession stand, this movie may just blow your mind.

I've already summarized the plot generically, but knowing the characters' names will better help you follow along. Thomas (Thomas Mann) is our protagonist. Costa (Oliver Cooper) is his wiseass, wannabe-player best friend. JB (Jonathan Daniel Brown) is their overweight, overly cautious whipping boy. Costa recruits an outcast named Dax (Dax Flame) to record every moment of their wild weekend--from the parents leaving town, to Thomas' ongoing Betty-and-Veronica struggle between class queen Alexis (Alexis Knapp) and the girl he's destined to marry, Kirby (Kirby Bliss Blanton).

If you've seen the trailers, you might think this is nothing more than an hour-and-a-half of pathetically gratuitous Facebook photos set to motion and filthy hip-hop. It totally is, and Project X wears its lack of character development, purpose, and moral grounding proudly on a torn, vomit-soaked sleeve. The heroes are caustic assholes to each other and to Thomas' unfortunate neighbors: a pre-pubescent security guards uses a taser on one of them. The partiers are selfish, clueless, and utterly lacking in pride (as evidenced by unquestioned obeissance of Costa's poolside "Naked Chicks Only" sign). In short, Project X is a peek inside the mind of what many scared adults and media moguls would have you believe is the average American teenager.

I haven't been a teen for a long time. But even if I was one today, I doubt I would've enjoyed this party. It's just way too out of control. I loved watching it, though; more to the point, I loved watching screenwriters Matt Drake and Michael Bacall carry on the underhanded tradition Phillips began in his criminally understood and underappreciated Hangover sequel: the filmmakers seem to hate their characters as much as the adult audience hates their actions. Project X is about punishment, not heroism. Sure, the guys get laid, stoned, and incredibly popular, but at the expense of their college funds, freedom, and God knows how many brain cells.

Their elated feelings are very much "in the moment", with cold, stark reality waiting just around the corner. The cute text-on-screen blurbs that close out the film are meant to elicit giggles--and they do--but if you pay attention to what's really going on, Phillips and company have rewarded the protagonists' single night of debauchery with a lifetime of misery--or at least potential subservience to those who were cool enough to keep their acts together. But, again, in the moment, we are allowed to share in the joys that come from diving off a roof into a pool with a head full of Ecstacy and a freshly spent penis.

My one gripe with the movie is the filmmakers' decision to ignore the corner they paint themselves into. Costa uses a brilliant bit of pseudo-lawyering to turn away a couple of idiot cops early on, but a couple hours later, the party has spilled out into Thomas' whole street. Lawns and cars have been taken over, and the music can be heard, I'm sure, a mile away. But it isn't until Thomas flips off a news helicopter that more squad cars show up. I'm pretty sure they would've been on the scene long before the riot unit was even considered.

Oh, did I mention that Project X's climax is a full-on rubber-bullets-and-flash-grenades war-zone Granted, it's kicked off by an insane drug dealer (Rick Shapiro) wielding a flame thrower--but there are definitely kids in police crossfire by the time aerial units begin bombing the neighborhood with water to save it. The penultimate ten minutes of this film look like the climax of Can't Hardly Wait, filtered through CNN coverage of The Occupy Movement or last year's Arab Spring. Even the weird loner kid, Dax, takes on darker tones in light of several recent school shootings. But in the tradition of great, black comedy, Project X makes the unthinkably disturbing gut-bustingly funny.

With a little re-jiggering, Project X could take place in the same universe as Josh Trank's Chronicle, another exaggerated, faux-found-footage exploration of teen culture. That film had a bit more going for it in terms of conventional narrative structure, but both movies deal with the consequences of power and how young people, especially, have little understanding of what wielding it actually means.

That message is buried deeply in Project X, but it's still apparent through all the chandalier-busting, balls-punching debauchery. I'm not going to attack the movie, as others have, as potentially planting seeds of destruction in impressionable minds. Just as Porky's didn't lead to rampant nudity on high school campuses and the Friday the 13th franchise didn't spawn legions of backwoods butchers, Project X is not going to compel anyone to destroy property--unless that notion was already bubbling up to the surface. I'm more concerned with Act of Valor's influence over teen audiences than this disposable, dark comedy.

This movie isn't for everyone, but dismissing it sight-unseen is unfair. As such films go, Project X is executed very well, acting as a metaphor for out-of-control hormones, frustration, and uncertainty. It's a beatiful memorial to innocence and a bleak heralding of adulthood's bland, routinized death march. Despite my sympathies, though, I'd call the cops on these little monsters in a heartbeat.