Thomas Mann, Jonathan Daniel Brown, Oliver Cooper, Dax Flame
(Warner Bros.; US theatrical: 2 Mar 2012 (General release); UK theatrical: 27 Jul 2012 (General release); 2012)
In the battle for the box office over the 2 March, 2012 weekend, it should come as no surprise that the latest Dr. Seuss adaptation, The Lorax, earned a resounding $70 million plus. After all, parents are constantly looking for ways to keep their entitled tots happy, and what better way than with a candy colored lesson on ecology. Indeed, almost any 3D CG cartoon today rakes in the unimaginable cash, so the record setting take for the slice of activist animation is no big accomplishment. What is interesting is the $20 million finish for the foul found footage teen comedy, Project X. Really nothing more than a series of outlandish antisocial stunts built around a basic “nerds throw a party” routine, the faux documentary style and YouTube tropes are seen as the evolution of the genre. While many critics hated it, word of mouth was strong among the intended demo (young males, 25 and under).
Whether or not that reaction from the predetermined fanbase means that Project X is a hit is yet to be seen. What can be deciphered from the statistics is that the sphere of influence for this misguided film has just grown a lot bigger. Put another way, the movie itself is junk, but it is dangerous junk. Now many who read that statement might think that this is some old man complaining about a primer to property damage and wholly inappropriate behavior, and in truth, it is. Yours truly is 51 this year and has never had the experiences the adolescences in Project X have. No envy, just a fact. To be fair, throughout his years in high school and college, he only attended one major “house” party - and it was one he himself threw at a off campus University residence. Considering there were few drunken/naked hotties, no gnomes filled with ecstasy, and the surrounding buildings were left fire free, one must consider it a failure (we did have a terrific live band in the basement, and plenty of recreational pharmaceuticals however).
No, the bigger problem here is one of imitation. Since we live in a society which struggles to find a purpose beyond the branding provided by the media and marketing, a film like this isn’t just entertainment - it’s a blueprint. It’s an easy to copy manual for how to go from zero to hero in one amazingly ‘epic’ night of homeroom hedonism. Responsibility and guilt are given lame lip service, a pre-final credits explanation arguing for the limited involvement of law enforcement. Even the father in the film, the parent who will now bear the brunt of hundreds of lawsuits, complicated insurance claims, and the monumental financial burden of rebuilding his family’s life, smirks a bit when he realizes his son’s hidden levels of debauchery. He may be mad, but the inference is that he is also a bit jealous. Of course, it doesn’t matter, since the party earns the appropriate response. Our trio of geek losers go from incidental to icons in their school - and all they had to do was indulge in the most loathsome, irresponsible behavior imaginable.
One can easily envision copycats being the last thing on producer Todd Phillips’ mind when he backed this low budget gimmick. The pitch - a ‘80s romp reimagined for the high tech tuned-in FourSquare generation - is easy enough to embrace. But since the final film lacks many of the elements that made John Hughes a champion among wistful, nostalgia-minded obsessives (plot, characterization, moral compass), the link dies within the dynamic. No, Project X may think it’s recalling the boisterous blowouts of Weird Science or Uncle Buck, but in reality, it’s merely channeling the carefree and nonchalant nature of today’s youth. It argues for as much miscreant behavior as possible, just as long as it results in drunken gropes, overtly sexualized interactions, a megaton of teen drinking, and a mass of middle fingers at anyone and anything that would destroy their unrestricted good time. Oh, and respect from one’s classmates.
For once, the ads have it almost right. This really is the result of a carnal coupling between Superbad and The Hangover - that is, if both films were stripped of their cinematic DNA leaving behind damaged criminal chromosomes and gross out gags. More importantly, however, Project X strips away the concept of mere fiction, thanks in part to its “you are there/POV” approach, and in part to the lack of any real story or interpersonal subtext. Sure, our trio have issues - one is a wet blanket, the other is a fat fool, and the last one is an East coast to West transplant whose Jersey Shore by way of Compton spiel would be cool…if this was 1994 - but for the most part, this is a music video meets infomercial that extols the virtues of vice while never once asking anyone to pay or feel sorry for same.
And don’t think it doesn’t work. The preview audience (made up mostly of those over the R-rating restriction age of 17) ate it up, laughing hysterically at the many non-jokes that make up the movie’s excuse for humor. Guys throws up on half-naked chick? Guffaws. Irate drug dealer uses a flame thrower to destroy our hero’s home and many of the surrounding suburban fixtures? Belly laughs. Animals abused? Property purposefully destroyed? A slow decent into the last lingering vestiges of our dying Western Civilization? All championed and chuckled over like afterthoughts in the grand scheme of young life. Ahh…to be young in 2012 - a time when the world protects you from yourself and excuses your own spurious stupidity.
Oh course, one could argue that this has always been the case, and even this aging author can remember a time when Mommy and Daddy pulled his butt out of a serious sling (or two). But Project X is a different level of illegitimacy. It boils down its decisions to a caveman level of complexity - sex, drugs, and destruction? Good! Accountability? BAD! It then tries to excuse itself by throwing out the “all in good faked fun” trump card, but that’s not how some viewers will see it. Instead, they will watch the rags to riches realization regarding high school popularity and will be hiring the dueling DJs and pissed off little person ASAP. Parents fool enough to leave their seniors sitting alone at home while they head off for the weekend deserve the dynamite about to be laced.
Perhaps a deep second week drop off will level the playing field for future mimicry, but make no mistake about it - $20 million worth of inspiration has just entered the mix. It’s not a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’... and when it does happen, here’s hoping Phillips and the studio have a spin doctor ready. Getting out of this one won’t be easy - at least not as easy as for the underage felons here.