Project X is the latest film in the trend of men-behaving-badly sex comedies that Hollywood studios have been churning out over the past few years. In the film, a trio of teenagers throws an epic party that spins out of control. When I reviewed Project X on Sounds of Cinema my judgment of the film was harsh, and deservedly so, but this film deserves some extra commentary. The picture makes plain some underlying attitudes and trends that have been dominating the comedy genre and those trends need to addressed.
Let me start by making clear that I am not coming at this from some puritanical perspective. I am not condemning Project X because it deals with sexuality, nor am I condemning the Dionysian debauchery of the film. On the contrary, I think we need more sex in the movies but filmmakers need to find ways of dealing with sexuality in a more honest and sophisticated way. Few mainstream films have dealt with the actual breadth of sexual appetites and too many pictures fall back on romantic tropes, portray sexuality as a poisonous taboo, or just go the lazy route of female objectification. We need more films like Shame, The Last Picture Show, or even Chasing Amy that will deal honestly with emerging sexual mores and their implications for individual experiences and for human relationships.
My primary complaint about Project X isn’t about sex or even the film’s homophobia and misogyny, although the filmmakers regard for women and for masculinity is horrific. The complaint isn’t even really about this particular film. Project X is awful but it represents the end point of a pernicious trend in the comedy genre that extends back over a decade.
In the late 1990s Trey Parker and Matt Stone created South Park, an enormously successful television show that is still running on Comedy Central. Predictably, the show was attacked by socially conservative commentators for its use of foul language and other risqué material. What those critics ignored or could not see was that South Park was among the first and most important examples of the age of satire that we are now living in. Although the humor on South Park depended upon gross out gags there was also a satirical genius at the heart of it. Films and television programs that followed, like Sacha Barron Cohen’s Da Ali G Show and Borat, used a similar appeal. Although characters would sometimes make homophobic, racist, and sexist remarks, audiences laughed at the characters making those remarks, not with them. That is a subtle distinction but an important one.
Throughout the 2000’s motion picture comedies started emphasizing bawdier humor. The forerunners were Scary Movie and the first three American Pie films, which were more sexually explicit than other comedies released at that time. This was followed a few years later by Judd Apatow and his protégés releasing a string of hit sex comedies including The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and Superbad. Whatever their other flaws, these films attempted and often succeeded in dealing with the sexual behaviors and ideals of the millennial generation. Like American Pie, the films were more explicit but there was also a good heartedness to them and although the characters sometimes demonstrated misogynist or homophobic tendencies, it was usually portrayed as part of their adult adolescence and the characters learned to grow out of it in the course of the film.
Following the enormous success of Apatow’s sex comedies and edgier satirical pictures and television shows, filmmakers started pushing the threshold of the R-rating. That’s understandable since, as George Carlin once said, the comedian’s job is to figure out where the social line is and deliberately cross it. But in the pursuit of topping one another in outrageousness, filmmakers lost the ability to distinguish between laughing at stupidity from laughing with stupidity. I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry and Hall Pass made no illusion about relying on homophobic humor. Beerfest, Sex and the City 2, and The Hangover Part II invited us to laugh with Americans acting like imperialist asses in foreign countries. And College and The Change-Up expected us to cheer on misogynists. To those who would suggest that I am being oversensitive or politically correct, I would reply that it is part of the comedian’s job to attack the powerful and the sacred. To pick on the oppressed or vulnerable through misogyny and homophobia is not to be a comedian, it’s to be a bully.
And that is the pernicious change that has occurred in the comedy genre. Like the horror genre, comedy has a counter cultural disposition. It challenges the audience by pointing out the absurdities of life. Writers like Jonathan Swift, Mark Twain, and Joseph Heller wrote about the issues of their day but put a comic spin on starvation, racism, and war. Stand up performers like Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, and Richard Pryor pointed out the absurdities of daily life and language by making audiences laugh about it. Films like Dr. Strangelove, Life of Brian, and Thank You For Smoking made a joke of nuclear war, religious fanaticism, and political corruption. Granted, these are edgier examples and plenty of comedy is much tamer. But the point is that a lot of great comedy is anti-establishment or at least challenges and ridicules the stupidity of society.
That is not true anymore, at least not in the comedies that Hollywood has put increasing focus on. The genre has been overtaken by the “bros,” a particularly wretched class of human being whose sense of self-worth is defined by a narrow conception of masculinity. The masculinity of the “bro” is outwardly confident but inwardly fragile, and he constantly puts on an assertive front while fretting over his failure to live up to an impossible masculine standard, and derides women or homosexuals to compensate. The “bro’s” role models are found on reality television shows like Jersey Shore and The Bachelor and his patron saint is Donald Trump, the master of the inflated ego. A pawn of consumer culture, the “bro” is completely absorbed in the mindless acquisition of status symbols like cars and designer clothes, and women are just another accessory. He is characterized above all by an undeserved sense of entitlement, expecting everyone to recognize his mastery for no reason in particular. It is this attitude that has defined comedy over the past few years.
To illustrate the shift, consider the notorious “frat boy scene” in Borat. In the film, Borat spends time with a group of young men who make racist and sexist declarations. The point of the scene is that we laugh at these idiots and mock their attitudes and ideas. Compare that to comedies like Project X and its ilk, which reverse this scene and invite us to laugh with the characters and share high fives with them as they brag about their sexual conquests and cultural superiority. The valorization of the “bro” characters in recent comedies, and the way in which those attitudes are vindicated and rewarded in the films, is the triumph of “bro” values over the very instrument that was designed to ridicule them.
In Project X this cooption reaches a climax as the parasitic “bro” values literally destroy their host. This film pulls together the misogyny, homophobia, and stupidity that have been the hallmark of recent comedy films but it also strips away any pretension of irony. From the opening, the characters speak in sexist and homophobic terms. Their behavior matches their vocabulary but so does the film’s style, which resembles reality porn more than a mainstream motion picture. (Incidentally, one of Project X’s lead actors was a porn performer.) As the film nears its conclusion, the predominantly white, upper class partiers destroy the house and the neighborhood in which they are gathered. This demolition of a wealthy, privileged suburb by the very spoiled brats who inhabit it is a fitting finale to the most recent comedy trends and an inevitable conclusion of the attitude of entitlement.
As I watched Project X, I hoped that the filmmakers would redeem themselves by pulling the rug out from under the audience by literally destroying everything, including the characters. It would be a brilliant turnabout and indict the stupidity embodied by the “bro” philosophy. But my hopes turned to disappointment and later to disgust as it became clear that the filmmakers did not have the fortitude or the insight to take such a route and instead went completely the other way, congratulating the main characters on their party and the destruction it caused.
Project X is a cinematic monument to stupidity but it might also be a defining film of this period of time. Its “bro” values are shared by trends in popular music and reality television and the picture represents the logical endpoint that the comedy genre has been working toward. Although it is unlikely to be the final film in this trend, Project X is one of the clearest examples of where we are and where we are headed, as the comedy genre continues to devolve into a twenty-first century minstrel show and the culture gradually surrenders to self-destructive narcissism.