It’s not my job or duty to “approve” the moral or political messages of movie advertising, but I do like to understand how they frame their appeals and accomplish their promotional objectives—the better to explain it to students, or more importantly, to earn my living from the satisfactory deliver of copy to clients. With respect to the official theatrical trailer for “Project X,” I gasped at the cynicism of the marketing, while applauding the trailermaking skill. I anticipate a strong opening for this “epic, dirty, hilarious movie” (verbatim from an audience member) film whose campaign enlists social networking (twitter/facebook), peer-to-peer advocacy and implicitly end-runs critical reaction and review. Experience the event, indeed.
Project X is a misleading title,because there is nothing mysterious or secret about the subject matter. Three high school “losers” (as described by the copy) bid to improve their social standing by throwing a raging party during a parental absence. The party is wildly oversubscribed and veers out of control. Rioting, mayhem and massive property damage result. Best of all, the events are videotaped and become, according to the framing device, fodder for a Jimmy Kimmel segment. The protagonists, while incapable of concealing their actions from their parents, have become cultural legends or outlaws courtesy of youtube.
We’ve seen this film before– although the midgets, the zip-line into the pool, the fire-bombed neighborhood, etc., etc., suggest an escalation in scale and scandal. (Audiences, it would seem, require more and greater stimulus to be titillated, shocked and satisfied.)
The 2:15 theatrical trailer begins with white text on a black screen, noting that in 2011, Warner Brothers invited audiences to “exclusive screenings” of this film. We then are told what those audiences said by way of reaction: “The Best party movie ever;” “An Epic, dirty, hilarious movie…I wish I was there;” “Funny as Hell;” “A parent’s worst nightmare;” and “Like SUPERBAD on crack.” These peer reviews appear on cards interspersed with scenes of the party, our three protagonists presiding.
Flashback to a scene at the grocery store where they boys buy supplies and spread the word, followed by a cards for Todd Phillips, and his relevant prior releases OLD SCHOOL and THE HANGOVER, promising name brand entertainment from a producer with a reputation for raunchy, anarchic fun. An infectious, transporting rave tune kicks in as the trailer delivers scenes from a teen bacchanal. Cards interrupt, exhorting viewers to EXPERIENCE THE EVENT / THAT WILL TURN LOSERS / INTO LEGENDS.
Soon exuberant celebration becomes reckless endangerment and major property damage. A father’s prized car drives into the pool. Triple parked cars and Rioting teens clog affluent, suburban streets; a flame-throwing guest ignites the neighborhood as party-goers flee in terror. Cut to an earlier scene of a neighbor who threatens to call the cops, only to be tazed by an over-eager attendee, who is then punched out by the enraged adult. Happily for our protagonists, the neighbor’s threats to involve the police are neutered by video footage of him assaulting the adolescent. Teens triumph over officious adults. This story line must test well.
Another early scene shows two of our protagonists in an ugly moment where the fast-talking, instigator cruelly insults his hapless, overweight friend (again!) about his body and his perfectly normal sexual objectives. Mean Girls have no monopoly on disciplining friends about body issues and sabotaging each other in their interactions with the opposite sex. Oddly, this is the third scene of unprovoked verbal abuse perpetrated by the same character, who is never shown other than conniving, obnoxious and insincere. I suppose “mean” tests well too. (I would argue that the tone/flavor of humor is tied more closely to the historical/cultural moment than about any other aspect of the trailer; regrettably, and for obvious economic and cultural reasons, we appear to be well into a nasty period.)
The release date and an invite to “get on the list” at the film’s twitter feed (follow@ukpartyprojectx) heralds the final button, in which the three sobering teens face the mess they’ve made and the challenge of cleaning up before parents return. The instigator promises that the video footage they’ve captured will never be aired, a line punctuated with a cut to Jimmy Kimmel discussing the Pasadena party and showing a clip. “Have you seen the footage,” he asks the studio audience, which function as a third-party invitation to do so. What he shows, before the four cards of credits closes the trailer, is a fire-helicopter dousing a burning home with flame-retardant, as the rave anthem swells in the background.
As I suggested earlier, the Ppoject X trailers is well-edited and compelling, despite its cynical positioning. The target demographic is appealed to on the basis of hilarity, raunch, vicarious misbehavior and a rather less foregrounded but no less potent combination of resentments: toward authority, responsibility and self-respect, most saliently. But the tagline call to action “experience the event/ that turned losers / into legends” promises that social success can be had for the price of anti-social behavior, so long as its sufficiently appalling. (No, not from throwing parties; but by behaving contemptuously to friends, parents, neighbors and community and recklessly with respect to safety and property.)
A legend is not, of course, a hero. In this case, our legends our hinds, but then we inhabit a culture that celebrates bad-boys and socio-paths, so long as they think big and destroy with abandon.
Is this a joyous evening? It doesn’t seem like it (with the exception of the bouncing Westmoreland Terrier—the cutest scene in the film.) Friendship plays little role; desperation seems to pervade the revelers as well as the party givers, whose bid for recognition and respect explodes in their faces. (They get the former, but the latter eludes them.)
Finally, this trailer advises you to listen to your peers, whose opinions matter more than any pointy-headed media critic, movie reviewer or uptight adult. If you can’t attend such parties, experience them as an audience member; if you can’t sabotage your own relationships with your parents, peers, neighbors and the future, enjoy that thrill vicariously. I’m talking to a wall here, I know. I was a once a thoughtless, emotionally stunted and angry adolescent; weren’t we all. But once we start celebrating pathology, enshrining it in multi-million-dollar filmed spectaculars, haven’t we drained it of its whole subversive, but not therefore invaluable counter-cultural ethos and reward?