In 2007, producer Judd Apatow and director Greg Mottola were responsible for one of the surprise hits of the year with their teen comedy Superbad. The film was about three high school outsiders determined to lose their virginity at an upcoming party, who embarked upon a night that quickly spiralled out of control in unexpected ways. The central characters comprised of a sensitive, upstanding lead harbouring a long-term crush; his rambunctious best friend, who is responsible for most of the trio's boneheaded decisions; and a character who takes awkward geekdom to new heights, despite his misguided stabs at suavity. Superbad's popularity was built largely on its outrageous, raunchy humour, but there was much more to the film than that. It had likeable characters, a neatly developed narrative and – most crucially of all – a sense of heart that gave a surprising emotional shade to the climactic scenes.
In 2012, we have Project X, a vision of what Superbad may have been if it had been made by people without an ounce of talent or empathy (or Todd Phillips – a colder, more cynical Apatow), and a depressing vision of what is deemed acceptable fare for mainstream audiences these days. You want characterisation, plot and wit? Forget about it. Project X is all about anarchy and noise. The central characters are drawn from the same template as Superbad's three leads, but they have been stripped of the real, human qualities that made those characters so relatable, leaving us with three of the most obnoxious and instantly loathsome creations I've ever had to spend 90 minutes with. Thomas (Thomas Mann) is the sensible one led astray, whose birthday party is the catalyst for the disaster that ensues, while JB (Jonathan Daniel Brown) is the fat nerd, but the chief offender here is Costa (Oliver Cooper). He's an unrepentant loudmouth with big ideas who refers to women as "bitches," men as "faggots," and fails to offer a single line worth remembering despite his constant flow of self-aggrandising chatter.
Actually, there's a fourth character worth mentioning. His name is Dax and as he has been hired by Costa to record the party planned for Thomas's 17th birthday, so we see most of the action through his eyes. Yes, Project X is a "found footage" film; a phrase guaranteed to strike fear into my heart in the same way that "3D" or "directed by Michael Bay" does for many filmgoers. The idea of basing your whole movie on footage inadvertently shot and later recovered remains a ridiculous one, especially when it is handled as incompetently as it is here. What is material shot on Dax's camera and myriad phones supposed to add to the film experience? All it offers is an extra layer of contrivance, as we sit through scenes wondering who exactly is shooting them and why (watch for the final conversation between Thomas and his father), and a constant distraction, although given the repugnance of what's taking place on screen, a few distractions may actually be welcome.
The height of Project X's comic invention occurs when a midget is stuffed into an oven and then proceeds to punch a number of people in the balls. That's the level we're working at here, but for the most part director Nima Nourizadeh focuses on the film's strengths: destruction, misogyny and chaos. Endless cacophonous montages shows us anonymous teens getting wasted, smashing up property and generally behaving in an irresponsible yet consequence-free manner. Fine, you might say, what's the problem with that? It's a teenage fantasy writ large – the party every nobody has dreamed of having in order to turn himself into a somebody. But there is no progression here, there is no sense of character development, there is no moral compass. Shouldn't a movie consist of something more than barely coherent depictions of mayhem? Shouldn't the protagonists develop in some way, learn something from their experiences or at least be affected by their actions? Am I simply getting too old for this shit?
Of course, the charge levelled at most critics who write damning reviews of Project X will be that the film isn't made for us anyway, and that it is aimed at teens who just want to have a good time and don't care about irrelevant details like "characters" or "narrative." But if that's the case, then why is Project X rated as an 18-certificate film in the UK? Do the filmmakers honestly believe there is an adult audience that will want to endure this toxic garbage? Maybe they're right, but I hope to God they're wrong. The idea that the British public could embrace a film as overwhelmingly odious as this is too depressing for words.