In Regards To Your Movie, ‘Project X’

By  · Published on March 2nd, 2012

In Regards To Your Movie, ‘Project X’

To Misters Matt Drake and Michael Bacall,

I attended a screening of Project X this past week, a film for whose script you two are inescapably responsible, and wanted to congratulate you on crafting one of the single most vile, reprehensible, and culturally detrimental films in recent memory. And I’ve seen Good Burger, twice. Every critic worth his salt, or even his Splenda, knows that when you write a negative review, even one for a movie as heinous as your recent blight on multiplexes around the country, vitriol must be confined to the events unfolding on the screen. In other words, it’s been well-established that personal attacks against a filmmaker are the antithesis of proper criticism. Therefore, despite the fact that, given the events on the screen, your tenuous grasp on propriety and overall morality is reminiscent of that dastardly Manson family, I shall nevertheless do my very best to restrain myself and tear down your festering dung heap of a film based on its own absent virtues.

Let’s first make sure I understand the plot of this film correctly so that there will be no illusions of, or ass-covering maneuvering citing, my misconception of context. You have a film about a high school student celebrating his seventeenth birthday, a child described by his own parents as “sweet,” but also “a loser.” Bravo by the way for painstakingly scripting this paradigm of acceptable parenting techniques. Honestly, I kept waiting for junior’s father to show up at his high school and pants him in front of all the cool kids. So Lanky McLoserface, now destined to be the author of several articulate letterbombs, has but one wish for his birthday: to spend time with his two best friends, one of whom happens to also be a complete degenerate who wants to make a name for himself, and his friends purportedly, by throwing the biggest, most out-of-control party imaginable. Despite all the resistance of the “protagonist,” Captain Pint-Sized Miscreant manages to scrape together an orgy of booze, drugs, sexual inhibition, property damage, physical assault and apocalyptic destruction. This party is ultimately broken up not by parents returning home or by any sudden spark of conscience, but by police in full riot gear and the reduction of a peaceful suburb to a scorched war zone; essentially we are watching a block party in the Gaza Strip. Then, of the vile beginners of this fray, two actually walk away scot-free while the third receives a verbal reprimand wrapped in a repentantly ham-fisted veil of begrudging respect from his father. Again, stellar parenting, Danny Thomas.

Oh, and how can I forget to mention that Project X is a found footage movie? That’s your entire hook! It’s what allowed you to forgo the usual, troublesome process of crafting a story and instead concoct an obnoxious game of one-upmanship with your own trite concept. I can see you two now, sitting in your mom’s basement, or someone’s mom’s basement, amidst a rising tide of rolling papers and discarded McRib cartons. You remember you have a film script due in the morning so you haphazardly engage in a game of hypothetical ping-pong, lobbing back and forth; “this crazy thing happens, and then this crazier thing happens, then ANOTHER crazy thing happens!” Repeat ad nauseam, credits. I theorize that this explains the total (lack of) genius in your enigmatic (thoughtless) title. I would imagine the original, lengthier name of the film during production was something like, Project X: Real Title To Be Added After The Jersey Shore Marathon and Hot Pocket Eating Contest. Shooting it as a found footage film also afforded you the opportunity to feature staggering cinematography the likes of which have not been seen since…the last time we visited YouTube. We all know that found footage is as much a gimmick anymore as 3D and the films that stand apart, those within the genre that are the exception as opposed to the rule, are those that find ways to creatively incorporate the cinema verité concept so that it no longer seems cheap. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying that the found footage angle in your film is cheap, because cheap denotes even the slightest perceivable value whatsoever.

What makes your film so unconscionable, what makes watching A Serbian Film with my grandmother a more attractive proposition, is its total lack of a soul. You create a world in which popularity is not just a currency, but instead something more akin to the last remaining resource in a post-apocalyptic world. A world in which the ends of achieving elevated social status justify the means of destroying lives and engaging in criminal behavior that would shock serial killers and political despots alike. You also fetishize teenage tits and ass, not in a playful, coming-of-age way but in an underground porn site, gonna-need-a-shower-immediately sort of way that should by all accounts land you on a sex offender watch list. True, your actors are all assuredly over the age of eighteen as to avoid your actual incarceration, we all know how inconvenient it would be to have to go door-to-door letting everyone in the neighborhood know when your next film is playing. But they are presented as high school students of indeterminate age, especially given that your lead character just turned seventeen. The movie devolves at points into the most repugnant Girls Gone Wild video ever filmed, and even Joe Francis will tell you that’s saying something. You also propose a world in which teenagers are so drug-frenzied that they will dive on a cache of free ecstasy tablets like five-year-olds upon the innards of a freshly burst piñata.

Mind you, all of this, and I mean all of this, could be forgiven if you at all adequately portrayed the negative consequences of this depravity. Granted we do learn, via a complete afterthought of a title card, that the birthday boy was brought up on some charges, but we never see it. Instead our last glimpses of him are his receiving a hero’s reception at his school the Monday after the party and getting back the girl on whom he cheated within hours of their first hook-up. Forgive me if I don’t find this to be a sufficient deterrent for others thinking of following in his footsteps. Not satisfied simply being flippant toward righting the moral compass, the title cards then emphatically state that the far more culpable little douchebag beats all charges against him thanks to his slick lawyer. So if you’re rich, you can get away with anything and that is something to be commended. Oh, and Obligatory Douchebag C has all the charges dropped because his parents lie about him being a “special needs” student so his sentence is reduced to merely riding the short bus to school for the rest of the year. The offensiveness of your film has so many facets that you’ve actually created the Rubik’s Cube of poor taste.

The one character in the entire film that exhibits any semblance of decency is the harried neighbor across the street. First of all, let’s forgo the absurd supposition that only one person in this entire besieged neighborhood would have a problem with the earsplitting roar of this hedonistic bash. Obviously in a movie like this, the guy who wants to break up the party is the hated villain. So how does this villain surreptitiously try and pull the plug on the festivities? He goes to their front door and politely asks that they shut it down so that his baby can sleep. What an asshole! I mean, whoever heard of a “baby?” Obviously, this loathsome breed of civility is worthy of a righteous tasing, right? The neighbor, being thusly tased, then lashes out at the punk seeking to electrocute him for making a reasonable request, at which point your script successful transforms the last upstanding person on the block into a violent, abusive monster. The two kids who repeatedly assault this man are not punished in the slightest.

Herein lies the main difference between Project X and something like Human Centipede. At least Human Centipede has the courtesy to exist in a world that is 100% theatrical and completely divorced from the real world. It presents evil deeds as they should be presented, as evil deeds. Dr. Heiter isn’t sewing people together mouth-to-anus in an effort to gain popularity, as surefire a recipe for Facebook friends as that may seem, and at no point does the film present his actions as anything to be revered and/or emulated. Not only that, and SPOILER ALERT to those who haven’t seen Human Centipede, but at least its sadistic, atrocious antagonist gets his fatal comeuppance. As extremely upsetting as this film is, this key difference means that I would rather watch The Human Centipede II backwards, which is somehow more disgusting, than watch Project X again. There will be those who defend your film in this regard by claiming it to be a work of fantasy and therefore playfully innocent in its depiction of events not meant to be taken seriously. Funny thing is, you made the choice to write this as a found footage movie, a gimmick whose sole design is to shatter the fourth wall and facilitate a more realistic experience for the audience. The film is also book-ended with title cards espousing that what we are seeing is a true story. I’m sorry, but you simply cannot have your filth-frosted cake and eat it too.

I am not a prude. I know that will be the linchpin defense behind which your few defenders will rally, but it is categorically untrue. I am no stranger to drink and debauchery and, upon request, can produce several lack-of-character references. But I tend to draw the line at putting my boozing cohorts at risk of incarceration or serious bodily harm for my own selfish gains, so therein lies the chief departure between myself and the “characters” in your film. Oh, and nice try with your fabricated line of dialogue in which the best friend tells the birthday boy that he did all of this for him despite our not seeing a single event up to that point to corroborate this statement. That can go back on the shelf, writers two, because nobody is buying it…and please don’t set the store on fire on your way out. Thank you, the management. I also enjoy The Hangover, a film directed by your producer Todd Phillips. So how could I hate your film and like The Hangover? They’re both about lascivious nights of drinking, right? Two reasons: The Hangover is a movie about four adults, and the fact that it’s called The Hangover is a direct acknowledgment of the cost of id-unleashing decadence. The majority of the damn film takes place IN the consequences.

I will concede that it’s not the responsibility of cinema to regulate and police morality, but that pendulum swings both ways. Otherwise it wouldn’t be a pendulum, it would be a rod. You, as filmmakers, are not expected to tie up every ethical loose end and preach to the audience on how they should live their lives. However, when you put forth the idea that contemptible conduct devoid of any regard for right and wrong yields nothing but rewards with few to no consequences, you are officially encouraging that conduct. If you present all of the fleeting social benefits of this kind of reckless abandonment of morals without addressing the intrinsic setbacks, you are de facto advocating it. There are no two ways about it. Project X, with its found footage approach and wanton depravity, plays like a detailed blueprint and pulpit for sociopathology.

And spare me your facile, completely erroneous argument about how your film is aimed at audiences younger than myself and that I don’t like it simply because I’m a curmudgeonly killjoy. I’m not a curmudgeon, even though I do currently sound like I’m waving my keyboard cane around my head and shouting, “get off my lawn, internet” I’m 27 years old and haven’t spent a single day in any of those years as an adult. Also, Project X is rated R, so the only people to whom you could possibly claim this movie is catering, in an effort to sidestep my criticism, are those who are not allowed to see it. You’ve made a film you’ve deemed too raunchy for children to see, without parental accompaniment, and yet you have ostensibly children performing all of the myriad acts of degeneracy that earned you that rating. Even if you want to subscribe to the idea that this film accurately exposes what actually happens at teen parties anymore, absurdly painting Project X as a hard-hitting social commentary, by championing the merits of this behavior, you are perpetuating the problem as opposed to simply drawing attention to it. You’re like the liquor store clerk who never checks I.D. and then tries to claim society is to blame for the underage drinking problem. Also you give the kids crystal meth and handguns.

I fear for society if this is what we’ve come to regard as an acceptable form of entertainment. This is a celebration of the very worst of humanity no matter at what age. Of course, that’s also what I said about Slappy and the Stinkers, but I really mean it this time. Your film is not just playing to the lowest common denominator, it’s playing to the lowest forms of life on the planet. With all its selfish, consequence-free vice, Project X is also a stomach-turning snapshot of all the reasons why so much of the world hates America. I legitimately pray that the Taliban never sees your movie.

If nothing else, Michael Bacall, you’ve given us insurmountable evidence that Edgar Wright did most of the work on the Scott Pilgrim vs. The World screenplay. But you know what, I am willing to give you guys this small benefit of the doubt. Perhaps your producer slipped some r0hypnol into your unassuming goblet of Four Loko, and Project X was merely the film you wrote while tripping all of the balls. I hope when you wake up, you read this response and that, in some small measure, I can contribute to your own hangover.


Brian Salisbury

Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.