Why 21 Jump Street is the teen movie Project X should’ve been

Monday March 5th 2012

Warner Brothers executives must have been rubbing their cocks against photos of naked teenage girls hands together in delight last Friday when the reviews came in for Project X. As expected, it was almost universally reviled by UK critics, who wheeled out their lowest star ratings and sharpest one-liners (‘the most repellant party this side of the BNP’) for a film they seemed to perceive as more of a personal insult than a legitimate cinema release. This, of course, was the desired effect — after all, who wants a thumbs up from the very establishment you’re trying to set alight?

Part of me, therefore, is eager to like Project X. I want to live up to my reputation as a ‘young, desperately trendy’ critic and champion it as a revolutionary work of post-Empire fuck-you-ism, breaking down everything we thought we knew about the teen genre and rebuilding it from the ground up. But I can’t, because whichever way I look at it, it’s crap. With the exception of some neat camerawork, Project X adds nothing to the genre it seeks to redefine, instead provoking only nostalgia for the teen films that came before it.

Perhaps its failings are all the more disappointing because it arrives at a time when teen movies are in remarkably good health. Since the second teen golden age ended in 2004, adolescent audiences have been lucky to get one decent teen movie a year, and even then they’ve hardly ranked amongst the all-time classics (highlights include She’s the Man, Superbad and Wild Child). Now, suddenly, we’re faced with a glut of worthy teen fare: in the first quarter of 2012 alone there are at least four choice offerings, including one all-out masterpiece that I can’t tell you about just yet.

One such highlight is 21 Jump Street, a reboot of the late-80s cop show about a squad of youthful-looking cops going undercover in a high school. Thematically, it’s similar to Project X, exploring what happens when the unpopular kids at school are given a chance to transform their social standing. There’s even a party scene, replete with the sort of violence, drug use and general lawlessness that helped make Project X so ‘edgy’. And yet nothing about 21 Jump Street leaves a nasty taste in the mouth, primarily because it allows its characters to act like bastards without becoming one itself. That’s really the key difference between the two movies: 21 Jump Street is the nerdy kid at the side of the party, carefully taking notes; Project X is the douche with the baseball bat nicking all your CDs.

Even more importantly, 21 Jump Street feels like it’s doing something new with the teen genre, while still acknowledging its debt to the classics that came before it. Its central idea (that clique-oriented 90s teens would be completely lost in today’s less codified high school environment) doubles as a reminder of the dangers of making 21st Century teen movies in the mould of their obsolete ancestors — a warning that Project X would have been wise to heed. Because let’s be honest, for all its iPhone-viral-Facebook-invite-web-three-point-oh credentials, it’s basically Animal House shot handheld.

Of course, the elephant in the room here is that both movies were written by the same man: Scott Pilgrim co-writer Michael Bacall. Perhaps some explanation for their vast difference in quality can be found in Bacall’s claim that he wrote most of Project X “at nights … between working on 21 Jump Street. Because really, that’s precisely what the former movie feels like: a teen movie fever dream, never intended for the light of day.