(EDITOR’S NOTE: Meet Luke Y. Thompson, a veteran film critic and a member of the Nerdist News crew. Luke, whose reviews have appeared in the New Times/Village Voice Media papers and at E! Online, will be doing regular reviews for us, and the first one’s right here:)
I can still firmly remember not wanting to see Superbad, based on my perception of the trailers (“We could be that mistake!”) and the fact that the viral clip circulating, which was supposed to sell me on the whole thing, was all about Jonah Hill drawing penises. I did eventually give in, and like everybody else have concluded that Jonah Hill has a tendency to actually elevate material, rather than just being the obnoxious fat friend those commercials seemed to depict. (Yes, the highlight of Superbad is clearly the B-plot involving McLovin, but that’s a separate point for now.)
What would a movie like Superbad be like without the star charisma of Hill and Michael Cera? Something not unlike Project X, in which newcomers Thomas Mann and Oliver Cooper play Cera and Hill wannabes, more or less. Except that Mann’s Thomas (most characters in this movie have the same names as their actors, for reasons we’ll discuss) and Cooper’s Costa really are nothing more than a skinny dork and an obnoxious overweight buddy. That they don’t have the comedic chops to overcome these stock caricatures is probably not their fault — the material they’ve been given is not exactly Apatow. In fact, it’s not entirely clear what it is, or what it wants to be.
This much we get – it’s a “found footage” flick, hence the “real names” bit. It even opens with a fake thank-you to all those who submitted footage, and an apology to the residents of North Pasadena. Silly, really — at this stage, the form is so much a part of the zeitgeist that such introductions are unnecessary, but never mind. Where we run into problems is the origin of most of the footage. We’ve gotten to where we forgive small lapses in realism as far as who is carrying the camera and when — Cloverfield‘s ubiquitous Mountain Dew product-placement was just a tad jarring, as are many sequences in horror movies when you’d expect people to just drop the equipment and run. But Project X gives us Dax, a character who doesn’t drink or get involved in the story at all, save for following the leads around with his camera. The movie tries to make a joke out of it at the end, but Dax may as well be named “MacGuffin,” as his motivation is flimsy at best, and his mere presence in the tale is borderline insulting to the audience. If he were eliminated from the narrative, and the movie shot handheld without any kind of faux-verite premise, it would be no more or less effective. But it would feel slightly less dumb.
The project of the title is a big birthday party for Thomas, to be held while his parents are away for the weekend, and organized by Costa, a transfer student originally from Queens who feels the need to prove he’s still hot shit even in the L.A. suburbs. Over the course of the evening, the crowd gets out of control, neighbors get hostile, everybody gets wasted, and of course our heroes, along with their other friend JB (Jonathan Daniel Brown), whose key trait is that he’s slightly portly and wears glasses, will try to get laid.
The beginnings of a greater plot are established when Costa decides to steal from drug dealer T-Rick (Louis C.K.’s pal Rick Shapiro), and indeed, T-Rick does resurface in dramatic fashion, but by “dramatic” I mean “jarringly notable” rather than “rich in drama.” Too much of the movie consists of montages full of people doing party-like things, such as drinking, making out, and getting topless (women only). Considering the price of movie tickets these days, it’s hard to justify recommending this over a Girls Gone Wild video for approximately the same content. The soundtrack, featuring Metallica, Kanye West, Eminem and more, is pretty kickin’, but why is there a score over top of found footage? And who edited together all the montages? Are we meant to imagine that producers Todd Phillips (director of Road Trip and The Hangover) and Joel Silver put them together based on fan submissions? It will surely come as a shock to no informed viewer that said producers’ respective favorite themes — middle-aged guys acting like drunken fratboys, and shit blowing up, respectively — make appearances herein.
Once the party gets on a roll, there is an undeniable energy to things, especially when a standoff with the cops gets out of hand. But to what end? Being charitable, we can probably assume no greater political analogies should be made; seeing civil disobedience portrayed as a drunken revel in a time when it has become a significant tool of revolt seems dismissive, but whatever. More to the point, what does the party achieve for our characters? This is hard to answer, because we don’t know enough about them. Thomas is referred to, behind closed doors, as a “loser” by his dad, though this seems forced; Senior is dorky also, so it’s not like dad is a jock shocked that he spawned a nerd. The typical longtime-female-friend-who’s-so-perfect-for-the-hero-but-unseen-in-THAT-way (Kirby Bliss Blanton) is established early, but Thomas also starts making out with her pretty early too, getting that tension out of the way quick. Yes, they fight later, but lover’s spats are less interesting than will-they-won’t-they tension.
When all is said and done, what has been gained? Characters we knew little about will or won’t face consequences? A smarter script would have them facing escalating danger throughout the evening, causing the viewer to wonder how our heroes can possibly get out of their predicament. Then again, a tradition of the found-footage form is to end without leaving it clear what happened to the people filming. Via end titles a la Animal House, we do get that answer this time, but it’s a cheap excuse for lack of story development. And, we hope, not a set-up for a sequel.