Review: Project X is morally indefensible, kind of fun

Corporate-Financed Party Porn

The knives will be out for Project X and it’s easy to see why. It’s easy to hate and even easier to critique, with its offenses against intellectual discourse easily quantifiable. The humor is deliberately low, and the protagonists aspire only to the kind of Tucker Maxian drunk bronerism that anyone who fancies themselves socially conscious will tell you is vapid and empty. Not only does it flunk the Bechdel test, it practically compliments the examiner on her tits and asks for a sandwich afterwards (I can not WAIT for the Jezebel review, or for Ebert inevitably high-horsing its dangerous glorification of binge drinking, for that matter). It plays like the porniest, most exploitative (though less hipstery) American Apparel ad you’ve ever seen, adapted to a 90-minute movie as directed by James Adomian’s version of Dov Charney. But while the sexism is undeniable, the attempts at comedy dumb and predictable, and the pandering blatant, there’s an overwhelming nihilism to the whole enterprise that I found simply delicious. I like that everything about it is bad for you. It’s dumb, over-sexed, derivative, and unrealistic, but almost gets by on panache alone. It’s bad and decadent and overproduced, but oddly charming, like a Def Leppard record.

Ten minutes in, I was ready to hate it too. The plot is more or less lifted straight from Superbad (whose plot was not exactly revolutionary itself), with leads Thomas Mann and Oliver Cooper like meaner, less charismatic versions of Michael Cera and Jonah Hill, who call each other “faggot” and constantly express the desire to get their dicks wet (a line that actually comes straight out of Todd Phillips’ 1998 documentary Frat House). Jonathan Daniel Brown plays their fatter, nerdier whipping boy, bearing the brunt of obvious whale and diabetes jokes. Worse, it’s a “found-footage” movie. Mann’s parents are going out of town on his birthday (sidenote: really?) and the kids’ plan is to throw a party big enough that it will finally propel them to regional infamy and endless teen pussy. Mann’s parents give them free reign of the house, partly because Mann’s dad secretly doesn’t think his son is cool enough to even get people to come to a party. “He’s… a loser, honey,” Mann’s dad tells his wife sadly, the perfect combination of dumbed-down, on-the-nose, and trite.

Project X’s decadent charm doesn’t really kick in until the actual party starts, when commercial director (and Todd Phillips protege) Nima Nourizadeh discovers his raison d’etre: shooting stylized montages of drinking, drugs, mayhem, tits, drinking, and more tits. If you can’t appreciate it on a visual level alone (and it is beautifully shot, both the movie and the tits), it helps to think of Project X as an 18-year-old male’s fever dream. That’s the only way a world with this many stacked, gleefully naked teen girls could be even remotely believable. But within that, it has an odd integrity. There’s never any attempt to apologize for having no higher aspiration than drunkenness and promiscuity, or for deliberately selling both to teenagers. At one point, Cooper’s character puts a sign next to the pool that says “naked chicks only,” and the next thing you know, girls more supple and nubile than any with whom you went to high school strip down in front of everyone and jump right in. NO WAY, BRO! OPEN ANOTHER SCHMITT’S HETERO! Those same girls’ smooth young breasts and butts will be cut to many more times; in context, out-of-context, regular speed, slow-mo, artfully shot from underwater, inside a bounce house, and going up stairs.

You’ll see this movie inevitably attacked for its piggish, amoral, booze-and-sex crazed characters, but try watching  Frat House some time. In a way, these are just a less Hollywood-ized version of actual young a-hole dudes. The question is whether the movie is actually asking you to like them.

Project X tends to bomb when it goes for overt humor, like a bit where a midget escapes from an oven and then hits people in the crotch, which could easily have been a scene in Spike TV’s God-awful, misguided bro pander, Blue Mountain State. X is much better when it goes for pure visual impact; youthful debauchery almost as performance art, like the best shot of the film, a sequence where a Mercedes crashes into a pool with a guy hanging from the open sunroof. And whereas I bashed Chronicle for constantly having to re-explain its found-footage conceit, repeatedly justifying its multiple camera angles with a character who’s a photographer, another who’s filming his whole life for a blog, etc., Project X just accepts that we’ll accept it, and it’s the right approach. It’s not that believable a gimmick to begin with, so why not go nuts with it?

While Project X is dumber, meaner (could really have done without the ‘no ugly chicks, bro!’ attitude), and a worse movie than Superbad on most levels, and will surely get bashed as such, there’s something refreshing about the way it doesn’t apologize for its characters’ horniness. There’s a weird trend in Judd Apatow-produced comedies of the male protagonist refusing an attractive woman’s sexual advances because of some technicality, a scene that happens not just in Superbad, but Wanderlust, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Get Him to the Greek… almost everything he’s produced. It always struck me as a bit of an apology, as overcompensation, more a reflection of the kind of people we want to be than the kind we actually are. The characters in Project X (realistically) don’t balk when sex with girls far out of their league (unrealistically) lands in their laps. There’s a broader trend of the asexual funny guy, and while it’s good that not every comedian has to be Andrew Dice Clay, neither should they have to be Conan O’Brien. I could probably have done with this being affirmed in a less sexist way than in Project X (girls don’t have to be free of personality in order for me to appreciate their tits, for example), but it was nice to see it affirmed nonetheless.

Project X is bold, fun to look at, and easy to watch. And on some level, like its protagonists, it understands that sometimes there’s a goal greater than being nice or cute or polite or heartwarming or even funny. Sometimes it’s enough to just be memorable.