Project X (2012)
88 min., rated R.
After you turn 21, the excitement and novelty of getting wasted gradually wears off. Those who still revel in their party-'til-you-drop years—or haven't even reached that point but can't wait to—are clearly the target audience for "Project X," an unfiltered "Superbad" or "Can't Hardly Wait" shot in the overexposed mockumentary/found-footage aesthetic. Only last month, the cool high-school superhero crossover "Chronicle" ingeniously proved that this do-it-yourself vérité format can bob through different genres besides horror. (Before that, there was "The Virginity Hit," a YouTube horndog riff that was more smarmy than funny.) But every generation needs a wildly raucous party movie, so here it is and full of piss and vinegar, whether we wag our finger at the bad behavior or raise our fist for it. As a pre-movie disclaimer, Warner Bros. and the producers (including "Old School"/"The Hangover" fratboy-movie pioneer Todd Phillips) want to thank everyone (including the law enforcement) for contributing the footage. It's obviously fake, but has become obligatory for this popular genre. A more appropriate disclaimer would be: "Don't try this at home." But "Project X" is more interested in glorifying the mindless cavorting and destructive consequences of a party spinning out of control.
The story is "Risky Business" cranked up to eleven. In North Pasadena, mellow Thomas Kub (Thomas Mann) is turning 17, as his folks are conveniently going out of town for their anniversary. That gives his best friend, sweater-vest-wearin', gangsta-talkin' douchebag Costa (Oliver Cooper), the idea to host an "epic party" at the Kub home. He recruits trenchcoat-wearing weirdo Dax (Dax Flame) to shoot it all like a video diary and the third musketeer, chubby JB (Jonathan Daniel Brown), is just along for the ride. Papa Kub thinks his son is a loser so doesn't have to worry, but warns Thomas with those final words: "4 or 5 friends tops. Respect my house." Tired of feeling anonymous and wanting a "game changer," Costa goes against Thomas's 50 people max. The birthday boy wants the party to be big enough to be cool, and these guys aren't the kind that could throw a sa-weet party, but word really gets around (via mass text messages and e-mail) and everybody comes to rage. Milo, the family dog, gets attached to a bouquet of balloons! A stolen lawn gnome full of Ecstasy gets bashed open like a candy-stuffed piñata! Guys skateboard off the roof and zipline into the pool! More chaos will unequivocally ensue. When and how will it blow over?
When Seth, Evan, and Fogell in "Superbad" wanted to get laid, there was at least a sweetness to their awkwardness in trying to impress their crushes. Here, the guys are just one-track-minded losers who throw around the term "finger-banging" like it's going out of style. That said, "Project X" doesn't really sparkle with strong characterization or witty writing, as most of the dialogue is of the witless douchebag variety. But as Thomas, Mann is a likably dweebish Everyboy. He makes bad choices, but there is a sense of worry from his anxiety as the house shenanigans escalate. Like a younger Joe Francis, Cooper's Costa is confident but overly obnoxious. He needs to be knocked down a peg or two, or reform school is definitely in his future. Kirby Bliss Blanton is a real find as Thomas's cute, cool best friend Kirby, but otherwise, the fairer sex (including Alexis Knapp as a popular slut Thomas lusts after) is merely objectified and on board to throw off their tops like it's Mardi Gras. Alas, Miles Teller, so charismatic and funny in the "Footloose" remake, gets lost in the crowd here playing a jock named…Miles Teller.
"Project X" is directed by Nima Nourizadeh, a first-time feature filmmaker who keeps this bacchanalia moving with a hazy, substance-fueled energy. There's no such thing as excess for him, as screenwriters Matt Drake and Michael Bacall's (2010's "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World") script gets pushed aside and the found-footage approach does all the work. The p.o.v., fly-on-the-wall camerawork (covered on five cameras, including cell phones and flip cams) is supposed to make us feel like we're there vicariously, and at times we forget Dax is even filming. Even early on in the film, no student questions a camera pointed at them in the high school. Gradually, as we get so many slo-mo montages of toplessness, drinking, and bouncy house jumping, with upskirt cams and underwater footage, it begins to feel like "Girls Gone Wild! The Movie" mixed with a Larry Clark film.
Amid the consistent grins and hesitant chuckles, there are a few very funny touches. When one understandably incensed neighbor files a noise complaint on the crazy kids and the po-po arrive, Costa's salesman method works in allowing the party to go on. Meanwhile, the hundreds (thousands?) of wasted teens remain quiet in the backyard. Also, two 12-year-olds are hired to be the security guards for the wild shindig, and they take their job pretty seriously even if they can't handle it. What stick out in the worst way are the unnecessary, mean-spirited gags of the "Angry Little Person" (Martin Klebba) getting stuffed into an oven and abuse of the family dog. And what is the obsession with someone being tasered in contemporary comedies, primarily ones engineered by Mr. Phillips? Toward the near-apocalyptic, insane-in-the-membrane climax, the film becomes dangerous enough that the fun and naughty portion goes "sayonara." Thomas, his buddies, and all the partygoers do face consequences in the form of SWAT teams, a police raid, news choppers, and an uninvited guest with a flamethrower. However, individually, even after practically having his parents' house burnt down and the neighborhood block in ruin, Thomas doesn't really get in much trouble from what we see on screen. His father, watching his own car being pulled out of the pool, clearly isn't happy, but he asks how many kids attended the party since he didn't think Thomas had it in him (huh?).
For all its brazen sexism, rampant hedonism, and white-boy entitlement, "Project X" will either offend or tickle your curiosity. On the basis of it trying to be The Ultimate Party Movie, the film succeeds. With the proud "all involving teens" R rating, it definitely doesn't fritter away. But when getting down to the nitty-gritty, it's junk, not art or a social commentary. There's no real value in it saying anything positive about teenage life, but it is a gleefully irresponsible and anarchistic celebration of teenage debauchery. As a "How To" manual and wish fulfillment, teenage boys will think that to gain cool, popular status, all you have to do is throw an awesomely dope house party and get underagers sloppy and half-naked. For homeowning parents, it will depress and appall, but did anyone actually expect "Project X" to have much more class than the "Jersey Shore" cast's idiotic shenanigans? Even when you can't believe it, you really can't take your eyes off of it. Most party movies can't say they put a midget in the oven or set the suburbs aflame, so "Project X" is very much ahead of the game, for better and for worse.
Grade: C +