Project X Vs. 21 Jump Street: The Kids Are All Confused
Two teen-oriented comedies this season share much in common, from a gleeful embracing of the spirit of youthful recklessness to the idea that geeks will indeed inherit the earth. One is among the better comedies we’re likely to see this year; the other is by far, on its face, the sleaziest. Both were penned by the same actor-turned-screenwriter, Michael Bacall, who also captured the slings and arrows of slacker youth heroism in 2010’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. So why are Project X and 21 Jump Street so diametrically opposed when it comes to depicting the youth of today?
Last weekend’s R-rated party bacchanal Project X was crafted with just the right pedigree for it to become, potentially, the party film of its generation. Produced by Hangover director Todd Phillips (and co-scripted by Matt Drake), cast largely with unknowns, and shot in a first-person verite style, the premise was simple: Three geeky suburban losers throw the biggest party ever to become cool and get the ladies.
Critics had plenty to complain about solely on moral grounds – rarely do films so glorify bad behavior without serious, remorse-inducing consequence when it comes to the teenagers onscreen, let alone the ones watching in the multiplex. Reveling in that unapologetic party spirit was much of the point, though; in taking risks and throwing caution (and his parents’ property value) to the wind, protagonist Thomas was handsomely rewarded for his ballsiness as a sign of maturity of sorts. Forget the gross, near-total objectification of women (even the obvious girl next door love interest partakes in a showy swimming pool dip) and the juvenile use of derogatory words like “bitch” or “faggot” -- at the film’s end Thomas and Co. may face charges for wrecking his cushy Pasadena neighborhood, but they’ve gained the respect of his fellow party-goer peers. That’s all that really matters, right?
Wrong, says Badass Digest’s Meredith Borders. It feels too insufficient a justification for the makers of Project X to hide behind the “teen boy perspective” defense given just how much the film celebrates this skewed point of view. In a post appropriately entitled “Michael Bacall, How Could You?”, Borders details the film’s offensiveness:
“Project X isn't an outsiders' perspective of one misguided group. It's a celebration of that perspective. I simply don't believe that a screenwriter can write a film that uses the word 'bitch' that frequently - said by protagonists whom we are surely meant to support - without being culpable for that sentiment at least in part. Bacall, Drake, [director Nima] Nourizadeh and of course producer Todd Phillips are all responsible for the message in Project X, and the message is execrable.”
Meanwhile, Choire Sicha writes at The Awl of Project X’s selective, seemingly just off-target approach to capturing what the kids today are all about:
“Especially for a film directed by an Iranian Brit, who's supposed to have done 'hip' commercials and videos, it's crazy retrograde. I expect the word 'faggot' to get tossed around a lot in a film that's about three straight guys trying to get laid, but in 2012 we never get a shot of, say, the gay dudes from the high school throwing down at the party? (Despite lingering girl-on-girl softcore tributes even!) Kids today, they like to say 'faggot' and they like having homos at their party. And then it all takes place in Los Angeles county, but there's barely a Mexican to be seen? Come on. Also I expect straight guys to talk about 'pussy' a lot, but I also expect the girls to beat them down for it. Instead there's a bunch of Mean Girls chicks strutting around and ripping off their tops in the pool. As if!”
Sicha’s observations, interestingly enough, play into the common defense of Project X – that despite the handheld found footage-aided conceit (a gimmick that suggests some element of “realism” even when we know it’s staged), this is pure 15-year-old boy fantasy. Maybe the three nerdy heroes of Project X don’t live in a real-world scenario to begin with -- the kind of post-racial melting pot of diversity and interests united by Twitter and YouTube that kids enjoy these days, at least in places like Los Angeles. Perhaps the world of Project X approximates that of any conventional teen sex comedy where the jocks are macho and the tomboy best friends are model-hot and nerds get pushed into lockers, only it’s told from the nerds’ point of view. “Of course they’re obsessed with sex and think of girls as sex objects,” the apologists cry. “Of course their drug-hazed memories of raucous house parties filled with drunk underage girls look like American Apparel ads! They are teenage boys!”
Bacall said as much when prodded for comment by The Hollywood Reporter in the face of Project X criticism:
“The criticisms about the movie being amoral because kids are dancing and drinking and having a good time, I think that’s absurd… because kids have been dancing and drinking and altering their states of consciousness for a very long time, and this is nothing new.
The thing these guys do turns out to be massively irresponsible and possibly tragic, as we fade to black, but I think the value in it for them is in kind of finding out where their limits are. Granted, there are more productive ways to do that, but this is the path that these guys decided [to take], and given that’s the concept of the movie, we wanted to just make that path as deep as possible.”
So it’s possible that Project X is an elaborately conceived manipulation of the collective teen sex comedy movie worlds we grew up watching and that the found footage aspect is a deliberate wrench thrown into the mix to pervert your expectations. Maybe it’s a collective cultural dream for us all to share in which the nerds finally win! (Or: It’s a shared wet dream that Thomas, Costa and JB are simultaneously having after watching Porkys during a sleepover in Thomas’s parents’ basement while the cool kids party elsewhere in the greater Los Angeles County.) Maybe these loser bottom-rung-of-the-social-ladder geeks are so out of the loop that they have no idea how to treat ladies with respect or invite all kinds to their house parties; naturally, if this was simply their fantasy, the conditions of the world would be limited to what they think the outside world is like in their minds.
Or maybe I’m overthinking this. Because after watching Project X, I saw Bacall’s next movie, 21 Jump Street, a movie that goes about embracing and identifying the nature of modern teenagerdom in a much clearer -- and more positive -- way.
You might not think so to look at it, but 21 Jump Street -- an update of the Johnny Depp cop show about a babyfaced cop sent to pose undercover in high school, here starring Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill -- is surprisingly sophisticated. Directed by Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs duo Phil Lord and Chris Miller, it constantly beats its critics to the punch in explaining its own vulnerable spots, including the very idea of recycling a decades-old idea in 2012. Where it surprises the most, aside from letting Tatum play to his comic strengths, is in addressing just how much has changed in youth culture, and the entertainment industry’s depiction of youth culture, since the 1980s.
Tatum’s ex-jock Jenko used to be the big man on campus in high school, where he tormented Hill’s awkward, Eminem-idolizing geek Schmidt. Now they’ve grown into rookie cops and besties, embracing their opposite strengths; they complement one another as a pair, even if the sting and the glory of high school, respectively, still guide their egos. But settling into their new assignment takes some adjustment; in the intervening years since they were teenagers, kids have evolved. Jenko, now ostracized for his meathead tendencies by the popular kids -- a diverse gang of forward-thinking, environment-friendly, gay-inclusive honor students -- blames the culture of Glee for ruining the old, familiar ways of teenagerdom.
It’s a smart approach to turning time-worn clichés on their head, especially since, for the Glee generation, things are different. Maybe not so different everywhere -- just take a look at the documentary Bully to see that much -- but in today’s hyper-integrated culture the old conventions just don’t ring true anymore. Perhaps that’s a perspective that comes from being on the other side of 18 and looking back, comparing what was then to what is now. By that logic, if one subscribes to the Bacall defense, we can’t possibly expect the youngsters of Project X to know any better, I suppose.
Nor are the fans targeted by Project X encouraged to give its critics much thought. A clever campaign for the film saw Warner Bros. strategically partnering with Vice Magazine on a series of college screenings paired with hip-hop shows, culminating in a live-streamed performance last week by Odd Future's Tyler the Creator and Kid Cudi on a soundstage decorated, appropriately enough, like a middle-class suburban scene. The Vice deal was about as perfect as movie synergy comes, given the publication's knack for making a business out of the often-skeezy side of party culture. At one point at the end of the night, Kid Cudi (whose anthemic 2009 single "Pursuit of Happiness" serves as the film's unofficial theme song) brought the extended cast of Project X -- including, by all appearances, at least a few underage actors -- onstage to do shots in front of the undulating crowd of hundreds. No one seemed even a bit concerned, despite the fact that the moment had been captured by countless camera phones and even, probably, witnessed on the web in the live-stream. The party was just too good -- too epic, the characters of Project X might say -- to be bothered by something as mundane as moral consequence.