Abundance of clichés mires the potential of “Project X”

Renu Nadkarni/The Phoenix

“Project X,” directed by Nima Nourizadeh and produced by “The Hangover” director Todd Philips, is the newest installment in the long history of party movies. It comes with everything you expect: parents gone for the weekend, unpopular kids trying to become popular, jocks, dweebs, heavy drinking, cops and, of course, the holy grail of every party movie: getting laid. The one stroke of originality (if you can call it that) in this otherwise extremely derivative movie is to use the “found footage” formula made so popular by horror movies like “The Blair Witch Project” and “Cloverfield.” While in the first half of the film this formula poses surprisingly interesting questions of authorship, it breaks down into fake news footage clichés, “cellphone” clips, and what can generously be called a half-assed parody of “Blair Witch”-style frightened narration into the camera. I want to like “Project X,” because it shows a keen eye to detail, and could have proven to be an ambitious contemporary take on the party movie. However, the plot is rice-paper thin, the characters are repellent, and the casual misogyny and homophobia are indefensible.

While I could list the various films that “Project X” draws its hackneyed premises from, that would be beyond the scope of this piece. Instead of a full plot summary, it suffices to list the clichés found in the film in no particular order, because that is pretty much what the film adds up to be, a record of clichés. Ostensibly we follow Thomas (Thomas Mann), Costa (Oliver Cooper), and JB (Jonathan Daniel Brown), three high school nerds who have to throw the best party ever for Thomas’s birthday to become popular, or something. Along the way, they encounter the cool older kid who can buy alcohol, the pretty popular girl Thomas has no chance with (wink wink), the best female friend who Thomas really likes, the crazy drug dealer, etc., etc. You have seen it before — you can put together the pieces. The problem is not so much the clichés themselves, rather that the found footage aesthetic leaves all relationships and plot points ephemeral and therefore valueless. Nothing gets fleshed out to any satisfaction, and all that is left are hints and nods to older movies.

“Project X” does take a lot of risks, and credit should be given for that. Though, again, the film does not live up to its potential. First of all, it does not shy away from the rude, and perhaps foul way that teenage boys talk. The dialogue is carpeted with f-bombs, homophobia, and misogyny. This proves to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, this is the way that sixteen-year-old boys talk amongst themselves, and this shows that the film knows its audience. On the other hand, while the male-banter formula (codified by the 1982 film “Diner” and recently popularized by Judd Apatow films) usually comes augmented with moments of genuine sympathy and camaraderie, in “Project X,” all we are left with are three immature potty mouths in a new-age slapstick routine. Likewise, “Project X” unflinchingly takes a stab at representing realistic teenage drinking, sexuality and drug-use. It was a breath of fresh air to see representations of people playing games of flip cup, casually passing around a joint and dancing to Kid Cudi, the way that real young people do. However, all the consequences are either far too exaggerated to live beyond the realm of fantasy, or are completely non-existent. The point of the movie is certainly not to provide any moral about partying, but at least show someone with a hangover the next day.

By now, everyone is familiar with the found footage aesthetic, but the filmmakers do succeed in somewhat putting their own spin on it, even if that originality is ultimately forsaken. Part of the premise of the film is that the three main characters hire a peer, Dax. Dax is reticent, though the other characters address him directly often, and a total creep. There is a distinct voyeuristic aspect to the otherwise run of the mill handheld cinematography. Private conversations, phone calls, and even sex are captured through cracked doors and windows. This actually invites quite complex questions of authorship and the camera’s gaze, especially as an adult watching underage characters. This all falls apart at the end of the second act, when the films shifts to mostly news footage and cellphone footage aesthetics. This is where the film loses its voice, Dax, and none of the questions feel satisfactorily explored. Furthermore, an unreasonable amount of this 87-minute-long movie consists of random party montage that in no way moves the story forward. In short, “Project X” begins with a formal structure that was actually really thought-provoking, but in the end it takes the easy way out.

I want to like “Project X.” I really do. It had so much potential to capture the current youth zeitgeist and even possibly address universal human conflicts about relationships and responsibility. The little details are all there: the clothes, the music, the drinking habits. But, where is the substance? Where is the growth? Where are the complex relationships? The film does not take its audience seriously enough to give them that depth. It pushes beer — and naked breasts — and iPhones in your face and screams, “This is what you want, buy more tickets please!” Perhaps a party movie needs the dream-like fantasy of traditional filmmaking. Perhaps it is too much to see the rudeness and hedonism of a realistic party, even if the found footage aesthetic is merely a conceit. Ultimately, while “Project X” may seem like just another stupid high school party movie, the reality is far far worse.

Nate is a junior. You can reach him at nblum1@swarthmore.edu.

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