Directed by Nima Nourizadeh
Todd Phillips neither directed nor wrote Project X, but his fingerprints are all over this found-footage teen comedy, which seemingly exists to answer the question: what if the characters in Superbad were kind of horrible? Like Greg Mottola's comic paean to male adolescent anxiety and countless other predecessors, Project X takes place over twenty-four hours, in the lead-up to and execution of a massive house party. It's thrown in honor of Thomas (Thomas Mann) turning seventeen while his parents are out of town, at the behest of his loudmouth buddy Costa (Oliver Cooper) and with the assistance of their chubby sidekick JB (Jonathan Daniel Brown). Quiet, mostly unseen Goth lurker Dax (Dax Flame) works a video camera to provide coverage where iPhones won't go.
Naturally, the party, which vaguely unpopular Thomas wants to cap at twenty or thirty people ("enough to be cool"), gets out of hand; save for twenty or thirty minutes of cursory set-up, that's about all there is to the movie's story. In found-footage tradition, the filmmakers try to dole out characterization via realistic glimpses—not realizing (or not caring) that doing this with archetypes just makes everyone look underdeveloped. Costa is a Phillips style alpha-sociopath (although at least, departing from the Bradley Cooper doctrine, his pick-up strategies are seen as somewhat resistible) hurling abusive vulgarities that are supposed to be hilarious, while Thomas wrestles with a standard bestie-versus-bombshell girl dilemma, only both of them resemble Maxim pin-ups. Actually, that looks disparity applies to almost everyone in the movie: the boys all look like regular teenagers and the girls mostly look like Michael Bay fantasy women.
They need to, because even as fantasies they don't have much to do. Any time Project X threatens to explore its characters' thoughts or feelings, it cuts away to an assemblage of random party shenanigans; it's as montage-heavy as the laziest rom-com. Some of these shots are funny visual gags, some are just shots of topless girls in a swimming pool, and the movie doesn't seem to know the difference—possibly because Phillips and crew have come to find debauchery inherently funny. It's not unlike the credits-sequence digital-camera slideshows in the Hangover movies, relying on quick jolts of naughtiness rather than characters, dialogue, or timing.
The party itself, at least, has a sense of escalation (albeit rushed, presumably to get to the boobs sooner). In the midst of all the wish-fulfillment sit some truly inspired touches, like the pair of younger kids Costa hires to work a zealous yet mostly ineffective security detail—their half-assed subplot provides several of the movie's biggest, weirdest laughs. As the guests swell to ridiculous numbers, the movie does take on an eye-popping disaster-movie quality; the digital-video footage supplies the required immediacy, and the so the climax is like Cloverfield remade for slapstick. In terms of staging the wildest (suburban, mostly middle-class) party imaginable, Project X goes there.
But, as with several other Phillips productions, Going There takes priority over all else. Post-climax, the movie tries to deal with the realistic consequences of such a monumental blowout, but can only process them by underlining how having an awesome time in high school rules all. I think Phillips imagines this mixture of creepy darkness and feel-good yearbook camaraderie as transgressive—an honest look at the bad behavior that so deeply and endlessly fascinates him. But Phillips isn't a satirist; frankly, he's barely a comedian. He just likes jerking his characters around through a cycle of humiliation and triumph so maybe-ironic it all becomes meaningless. Project X is like a marauding party guest: hilarious in small doses, but kind of pathetic if you think about it.
Opens March 2