Project X (2012)

Watching Project X is like snorting cocaine while Superbad plays in the background. Is it good? Fuck, man, I don’t know. It’s an experience!

Project X is an unquantifiable found-footage teen comedy. As someone who has watched a lot of teen comedies, I can say with certainty that this is a pretty bad, derivative, jokeless example of the genre for most of its runtime.

Yet it is an utterly fascinating achievement that gradually reveals itself to be more ambitious and eccentric than any “teen comedy” sales pitch would ever convey.

I fear I am not being coherent, so let’s unspool it. We can use the “found footage” angle as our entryway to break this thing down.

Found footage movies are made almost entirely in the horror genre, and there’s certain advantages of that form-content pairing. But there’s nothing to say that the found footage format need be used exclusively for scares, and I think it’s an underexplored idea to tell non-frightening stories in the format; the lo-fi naturalism can serve other purposes. Indeed, I quite enjoyed 2021’s Language Lessons, a found footage dramedy.

Project X tells via camcorder footage the story of Thomas (Thomas Mann) throwing a birthday party while his parents are out of town. He is egged on by his best friend Costa (Oliver Cooper) and third-wheel J.B. (Jonathan Daniel Brown). He’s good friends with Kirby (Kirby Bliss Blanton), who has long had a crush on him, or perhaps vice versa; the movie is not really clear on the dynamic with the small snippets we get.

And so the movie traces the entire life of the party: Its planning, advertisement, slow opening, gradual escalation, chaotic peak, and its insane tipping points. The movie jumps around in dizzying panorama of clips that create a boozy mosaic. It reads almost like a love letter to the very ideal of teen partying — not entirely in a positive light, but close enough that it I can see why it got a bad reaction from parents.

The film’s weakest stretch, by far, is its opening 20 minutes, before it becomes clear the movies ambitions lie outside of being a stylistically odd, shitty Superbad knock-off. Those opening minutes feel like a rough draft of a bad photocopy, and it is an aggressively unfunny and joke-less stretch.

The movie grows more intense and chaotic as the party proper starts, which gives the of comedic material a bit more spitfire. It’s not as if the movie “loosens up” after a slow start; quite the opposite. It ratchets the anticipation and energy, so, e.g. a surprise use of a taser by a scrawny freshman is almost a jump scare as it is an unexpected punchline.

The second half of the film has maybe two or three scenes of actual plot, and that is not an exaggeration. It essentially abandons almost all pretense of story in favor of escalating its worship at the fractured altar of teenaged inebriation and indulgence. The result is truly one of the all-timer parties in movie history. All the stops are pulled in crafting a texture of debauchery and transcendence-via-hedonism; it is the unfiltered id of a reckless and horny teenager. The culmination of the party is a burning ejaculation, a destruction of the sanctuary of youth. I was breathless.

Much of the material is crass — drugs, nudity, party stunts, cursing, fighting, vandalism, destruction — and some of it is savagely tasteless: There’s a runner about a midget punching people in the crotch that made me laugh more out of uncomfortable shock than legitimate amusement.

But I also found the film somewhat admirable, almost beautiful, in its worshipful portrait of its party and the near-apocalyptic conclusion. There’s rhythm and color in these tiny snapshots, not in a Dazed and Confused slice-of-humanity way, but in an MTV, assault-on-the-senses way.

To answer the question posed in the opening paragraph: I don’t think I can say in good conscience that Project X is good. Parts of it are dreadfully grating; Cooper, in particular, is doing an over-the-top, shrill Jonah Hill impression that never verges into sympathetic or charming. But there’s something oddly powerful about how the film translates teen movie tropes into a visual beatification of a high school bender.

Is It Good?

Nearly Good (4/8)

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