Most days, it’s hard to remember I’m a 31-year-old man. I work from home, in an office filled with graphic novels, toys, and Spider-Man artwork. I don’t have a commute or a dress code. No one gives me dirty looks if I spend my lunch break rereading “The Infinity Gauntlet” for the umpteenth time. I wouldn’t say I’m immature — I have a wife and a dog and a mortgage, I work something like 60 hours a week paying the bills and I even pay attention to the Nutritional Facts on bags of potato chips — but I’m not exactly “a man” either, if you know what I mean. I sense deep in my bones that something’s changed in the decade since I graduated from college, but when you spend most of your time writing about Arnold Schwarzenegger and Batman in your pajamas, it can be hard to figure out just what that something might be.
And then there are other days — like yesterday, when I watched a movie called “Project X” — when it’s really easy to feel the gulf between then and now, when I’m reminded I’m old enough to have kids (and almost old enough, if I was as dumb as the characters in “Project X,” to have a kid old enough to be a character in “Project X”). This is a movie about how awesome it is to be a teenager — but something about it made me deeply, deeply sad.
That doesn’t mean it’s not well-made; on the contrary, it’s slick and polished in a way that enhances its unsettling impact. It’s about a quartet of high school nerds who throw a “game-changing” birthday party for Thomas (Thomas Mann) while his parents are out of town. The party gets out of control; everyone gets drunk and takes ecstasy, Thomas’ house is trashed, his block becomes a war zone, riot police are called in, and chaos ensues. But for all that destruction there are essentially no repercussions; seemingly no one is hurt, even when a guy starts using a flame thrower to destroy the neighborhood, and seemingly no one is punished, even when the cops start firing flash bombs and rubber bullets. All four kids are back in school the next Monday and now they’re popular. So it worked! Remember kids: when someone tells you drinking, drug abuse, and underage sex are dangerous and won’t make you cooler in school, just remember: those people are wrong.
Maybe I’m making too much of this. “Project X” is just a dumb fantasy for teenagers — albeit a fantasy so loaded with profanity, misogyny, and nudity that it can’t be legally viewed in a theater by its target audience without parent or legal guardian — so let’s compare “Project X” with the giant teen party movie of my youth, “Can’t Hardly Wait.” I loved “Can’t Hardly Wait” when I was 18 — proof, at least, that I wasn’t always a moralizing monster.
Like, “Project X,” “Can’t Hardly Wait” takes place over the course of one long night at a raging house party. Many of the characters are immature and horny; one, a nerd played by Charlie Korsmo discovers how much fun it can be to booze it up with the cool kids. But amidst all the bacchanalian debauchery, there is growth. An introvert (Ethan Embry) who’s been hiding his feelings for four years reveals his love to a girl. An idiot who’s turned himself into a cartoon of gangster stereotypes (Seth Green) in an attempt to be cool and get laid discovers both are much easier when he drops the facade. “Can’t Hardly Wait” a fantasy, sure, but one with at least a little bit of heart and human emotion.
You’ll find neither in “Project X,” though I suppose that makes it very much appropriate to the zeitgeist in 2012. These teenagers tends to get referred to as Millennialls. I recall the Me Generation and think they deserve a similar title: the Eff You Generation. They’re not just looking for fun, they feel entitled to it whenever they want it and up yours if you don’t like it (“What? I have to pay for cable and HBO to watch ‘Game of Thrones?’ Eff you, I’ll download it!”). In “Project X,” one of Thomas’ neighbors asks him to wind the party down at 11:30 at night. He gets tasered, beaten up, embarrassed, and his property is destroyed — all of which is played for laughs. Haha! Sucks to have empathy for other human beings! Eff you, pal.
The sadness “Project X” stirred in me eventually gave way to clarity. Getting old is a bummer, but it feels kind of good to care about things and other people (while also still reading “The Infinity Gauntlet”). When I was 17, I might have gotten sucked into “Project X.” Not anymore. If I ever talked or acted like the characters in this movie, I owe my family and friends a deep apology.