Monday, March 5, 2012

Smells Like Teen Something: PROJECT X

I’m now in my fourth stage as an audience member for teen comedies. The first stage starts as a preteen, a time during which representations of high school life are viewed as a promissory note. High school will be totally cool, these movies seem to say, even as they build elaborate embellishments that couldn’t be further from the truth. The second stage comes during high school. Now, these movies feel stupider – that’s not how my high school is – although you’re at the right age to be able to spot some truth in the best ones. The third stage happens as an undergrad. Now teen comedies are part nostalgia, part relief: that’s not how my high school was, but I’m glad I don’t have to do it anymore.

Which brings us to the fourth stage in my evolution as a watcher of teen-centric comedies. Recently, when watching a fairly mediocre new teen comedy, like Project X, which has a small nugget of truth or two but can’t figure out how to use them, I find myself occasionally feeling a twinge of terror. I sure hope this isn’t how kids these days really are. I suspect the feelings in this fourth stage might only deepen and intensify as I grow older. Of course, the thought wouldn’t cross my mind at all if the movie were any good, or at least significantly better, or at least with less misogyny, all-around nastiness and unearned rage. From 2007’s Superbad, perhaps the last truly great raunchy teen comedy, to last year’s criminally underseen The Myth of the American Sleepover, teens behaving badly can have great comedic and emotional resonance when made thoughtfully and observantly. Barring that, it’s often just difficult to watch.

The premise of Project X is that a lanky dweeb (Thomas Mann) is turning 17 so his friends decide to throw him the birthday party to end all birthday parties. That’s it. The movie takes place over the day and night of the party. The plan starts from a place of simple envy and fantasizing. Towards the beginning of the movie the dweeb and his grating best friend (Oliver Cooper) and pudgy third wheel (Jonathan Daniel Brown) overhear some dude in the locker room boasting about the wild party he went to over the weekend, the kind of half-believable high school rumor party that was so totally wild you can’t believe you’ve barely heard of it. Never mind the fact that the clearly exaggerated party – one in which even that kid in a wheelchair got some raunchy behavior done to him – is only an unattainable ideal for these kids. It makes them jealous enough to double down on their commitment to coolness through partying.

The kids are all alone in the house since the dweeb’s parents have left for the weekend, scurrying out the door shortly after singing “Happy Birthday” and watching their son blow out his candles. So the party planning committee jumps into action, anticipating “no more than 50 people” to carouse in the pool and to drink beer the graduated-but-hardly-gone jock (Miles Teller) promised to bring. As is so often the case in teen comedies, the party grows comically overstuffed – at one point the attendance is estimated to be 1,500 to 2,000 people – and every bit of the house set up as untouchable, every bit of the rules meant to be unbroken, are touched, broken, or otherwise defiled in unspeakable ways.

At first, the movie seems to be headed for a nice, resonant point amidst the nonstop debauchery. It’s shot in a found-footage style, which allows first-time director Nima Nourizadeh to show what the kids themselves find most important, their instant self-mythologizing in a way. (It’s also a technique that’s been used almost exclusively for horror on the big screen, which gives the whole thing razor’s-edge uncomfortableness). At one point the birthday boy frets that footage will end up on YouTube and his parents will find out. I was all ready to praise the film for using an overdone style in an intermittently successful genre to make a larger societal point. With a proliferation of video cameras and easy access to the Internet, kids these days can find their mistakes permanently part of an easily searchable archive of amateur footage. So a teenager throws a party behind his parent’s back? I’m sure it happens and sometimes he’d get caught and punished. The self-chronicling of teenagers means that any guest is a potential security breach. There’s almost no way news of this party won’t get out.

But Matt Drake and Michael Bacall’s script doesn’t go there. The party just grows wilder and wilder by the montage. Soon, it’s not just teens dancing and drinking, soliciting a perfectly reasonable noise complaint from a neighbor that is laughed off in a particularly cruel scene. They’re locking a midget in an unused oven. They’re taking pills and jumping off the roof and hanging from the chandelier. They’re fighting and making out. They’re setting up Rube Goldberg illegal substance consumption devices. Someone even drives a car into the pool. And all that’s before the cops show up in riot gear and some dude arrives with his flamethrower, fully intending to use it. The excessive partying becomes essentially a riot. Now of course the parents will find out, diffusing the potential impact of its broader sociological implications.

After a while, I found myself just tired of it all. It sets up the partiers as purposefully thin characters and I just couldn’t spend any more time in their company. They’re totally wild in a thoroughly unenjoyable way. How many people can you watch puking, peeing, or punching before you’ve had enough? By the end, the movie just shakes its head and grins. Man, wasn’t that a night? It plays off with a laugh police, neighbors, and parents. But these aren’t just people who are a little too uptight, the usual source of scorn in these kinds of movies. These are people who don’t want their neighborhood burnt to the ground. I think they’re entitled to their objections.

There are some nice touches here and there. I liked how the friends hire a couple of gravely serious twelve-year-olds to run security for the party. I enjoyed the thumping hip-hop hits on the soundtrack. I liked the random mustachioed gentleman who shows up to party, later pukes all over a parked car, and then turns up the next morning standing next to his exasperated and unsuspecting wife as she’s interviewed by the local news.

This is, all things considered, essentially a brisk and well-made cheapie exploitation picture. It reminded me of Alexandre Aja’s similarly exasperating Piranha in its willingness to set up a group of self-destructive slimeballs and then sit back and watch the carnage. But as the craziness of the party spirals out of control I found myself feeling nothing but sadness for the central character, the poor, sweet-faced little guy, as his eyes grow redder and his complexion pales and the doom of it all settles on his shoulders. No one deserves this. If the movie had cared, even a little bit, about the characters, it would have done a better job putting all the little transgressive moments into a larger, more satisfying, emotional context.

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