Project X is like any infamous, out-of-control, teen party; it sounds a lot more interesting in anecdotes than it actually was.
Produced by Todd Philips, still trying to be John Hughes of the You Tube generation, Project X gets just the right crazed energy for the party itself but lacks strong characters and an engaging plot. As a result, the movie gets swallowed up by its own hand-held chaos and dedication to ‘can we top this, oh yes we can!’ debauchery.
Although it claims to be based on a real party where a California teen used Craigslist to advertise an unsanctioned party that resulted in riot police, the real inspiration for this mish-mash of bared breasts, drug abuse and daddy-issue angst is Superbad. Everything is cribbed from that source, and the rest borrowed from ribald 80’s comedies.
Now, filter it through the lens of the found-footage gimmick, with a goth videographer capturing the shindig for posterity, spliced together with cell phone recordings and even footage from police helicopter cameras. As the intensity of the event amplifies, the film reverts completely to routine. You might be surprised by a few drug-fueled, horn-dog antics but you won’t be caught off guard by what happens to who, or why. Even that impossibly late-in-the-game flamethrower doesn’t deliver the charge it probably should.
For me, it’s the characters who fail to register. A good bit of the blame is down to the film’s ethos, which revels in the hollow destructiveness of the main trio; we are supposed to believe there’s more to them, but they are either passive pushovers or hiding miscreant tendencies under pathetic nerd personas. Thomas (Thomas Mann) is what passes for a hero, and his quest to lay his dream-girl Kirby (Kirby Bliss Benton) is a non-starter because we never understand what she’d possibly see in him. He, himself, is a blank slate that his more strong-willed buds, the decadent Costa (Oliver Cooper) and obligatory, overweight tag-along JB (Jonathan Daniel Brown), use as a means for realizing their booty-soaked ambitions.
Nothing works out the way they hope it does. That of course, is the thrust of any ‘good night gone wrong’ premise, but conversely, nothing really ultimately goes that wrong. Project X wants us to believe it has a dark side, pushing some of the night’s naughty activities so far we feel compelled to roll our eyes or turn our heads, but a real-world party of this magnitude would be marked by serious tragedy. You don’t put a wild-eyed midget into an oven unless you are prepared for serious consequences.
For a thirty-something home owner whose teenage rebellion is far behind him, a film like Project X should be my Paranormal Activity; that non-stop hour of property damage, dangerous, underage activity and reckless vehicular joyriding ought to scare the mess out of me. But it doesn’t, and I doubt any but the most knee-jerk, trending parents are going to get up-in-arms over its negligent view of teen misbehavior. This is because it’s such a complete fantasy that it can’t even muster that generational alienation that stuff like Animal House or Risky Business engendered.
None of this negates the fact that, for a time, director Nima Nourizadeh does create a hazy, hypnotic dream of events spiraling out of control in a way that feels true to the atmosphere of a big, loud party where the host has long since given up on recognizing the guests. He builds some often hilarious and occasionally surprising imagery into the film, including a dog lifted away on balloons or the sheer maddening scale of the third-act firestorm and raid. There’s simply too much straight party footage though, rendered in such an unimaginative format that one might suspect they just filled in the empty spots between gags with Girls Gone Wild repeats. And there’s no sincere imagination at work; as crazy as some of it is, it’s all momentary madness. When you leave the theater, you struggle to remember. I never had that problem with the likes of The Breakfast Club or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
Project X, along with the far more disjointed and loathsome Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie (also opening this weekend), reflects the impact that video-sharing sites like You Tube (or in this case, ebaum’s world) have had on mainstream entertainment—particularly teen demographic stuff. Everything in Project is episodic and trumped up; not developed to play a larger role in a whole, but to wave its arms and scream ‘Look at me! Watch this! Watch this!’ Project X works completely on that level, but it only amounts to an evening spent at home breathlessly watching videos of punks igniting microwaves or setting their butt hair on fire—always exclaiming ‘that’s the craziest thing I ever saw’—until the night has expired, you’ve lost three hours of time and feel terrible for it.
Project X may think it’s aiming for more than that, pretending to be some rough-and-tumble Sixteen Candles. It’s more like a disheveled and exposed Can’t Hardly Wait, stumbling about with puke in its hair.