Thursday, March 8, 2012

Defending the Indefensible: Why Critics Don't Get Project X

Posted By on Thu, Mar 8, 2012 at 4:32 PM

Project X is a nearly plotless exercise in cinematic nihilism wherein three undersexed teenage boys forge a path to manhood and infamy by orchestrating what begins as the greatest party of all time, and ends in something more akin to a minor civil uprising. It is a film which pays tribute to the indomitable spirit of shameless self-promotion, wanton substance abuse and unchecked hyper-misogyny. Audiences may be appalled by the picture’s absolute lack of a moral compass — homes are set ablaze, animals tortured, families bankrupted — all in the name of a bacchanalian orgy of hedonistic indulgence. It is a gratuitous, mean-spirited movie which threatens to undermine the virtue of an entire generation of young Americans.

It also happens to be pretty entertaining.

You’d be hard-pressed to find many reviews that agree on that last point, though. Over the last week, the film has become a punching bag for critics, for all the reasons above and more. Some of these critiques are so vitriolic, so consumed by their own cultural dementia, that they don't even attempt to offer any worthwhile perspective on the film itself. Thirtysomethings used to thinking of themselves as arbiters of cool suddenly find themselves in league with the baby boomers the film is designed to scare the living shit out of.

As they scramble to justify their positions, these theoretical tastemakers only embarrass themselves. Struggling for relevance, some frame the movie as a symptom of the self-absorption they say is afflicting contemporary American youth culture. Never mind that the premise of the film is inspired by a four-year-old event in Australia wherein a house party — or rather the police overreaction to it — made a viral media sensation out of teenage party organizer Corey Worthington (whose YouTube appearance is parodied at the end of the film).

It’s not that the accusations against the film are entirely incorrect — they just miss the point.

As of publication, rottentomatoes.com lists Project X’s critic approval rating of the film at a meager 28 percent, while the audience approval rating charts a substantial 71 percent — on par with the weekend’s top-grossing picture, the family-friendly Dr. Seuss adaptation The Lorax. So what’s to account for this schism of opinion between career professionals and the collegiate audience for which this film is targeted? If you were to only listen to the published opinion, it would appear that the audience is at best a bunch of gullible suckers, and at worst a cabal of drug-addled date rapists.

So let’s consider the audience perspective for a moment.

Whether you’re a high-school freshman, working on a postgraduate degree, or at any level of educational discourse in between and beyond, you’ve signed on to a generations-old social contract. It promises that education and hard work will lead to career placement, financial security and the overall fulfillment of the American dream. And yet, although you’re following through on your end of the bargain, the situation is changing in ways that make it ever more difficult to do so.

Despite the sacrifices of your overworked parents and the part-time job you’ve taken, the perpetually rising cost of tuition ensures that you’ll be swimming in debt for decades to come. On top of that, the prospects of job placement after graduation are looking increasingly grim. Even if you can land a job, who’s to say how long you can keep it? The concept of career longevity is antiquated. You don’t exactly have to major in Marxist theory to suspect that you’ve been cheated.

Along comes a nasty little debauched movie about some kids not too dissimilar from yourself. Instead of signing off on the same social contract to which you’re bound, however, they throw it all away for the immediate gratification of a white-hot phosphorus blaze of glory. It’s not that you no longer desire the split-level home in a nice neighborhood, or the BMW under the carport. It’s about the catharsis one experiences when presented with the daydream of not giving a shit about any of that in the first place. If nothing else, maybe this hateful little movie can equip the viewer with some perspective on the cruel bait and switch that is adulthood.

Seen in this light, Project X — a major motion picture — is an incendiary attack on the status quo, infinitely more relatable than the truly offensive pseudo-revolutionary garbage in 2005’s V For Vendetta. Why stop at Occupying Wall Street? Project X literally brings the war home to suburbia. Intentionally or not, it Occupies the American Dream and all the broken promises that come with it.

As apolitical and un-PC as the audience it is intended for, Project X is only guilty of pretending to be something it’s not in that it abandons its clunky social-media gimmick almost as soon as the film begins — a device producer Todd Phillips’ early collaborator Andrew Gurland employed with infinitely more grace and relevance in 2010’s sadly neglected The Virginity Hit.

Is Project X intelligent? No. Is it a good movie? Sort of. Have I read too deeply into it? Oh hell yes.

But that’s the point. Everyone has. As an 88-minute Dionysian display of narrative-barren recklessness, Project X serves as an echo chamber for the perspective of the individual viewer. As with many great pieces of art (which this is not), your reaction will depend on the baggage you project upon it.

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