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A grimly depressing, glumly unfunny teensploitation comedy about an epic all-night party that devolves into anarchy, Project X also is an intriguing blank slate, a sort of crude art object upon which viewers can project whatever feelings they have about the degenerative high jinks on display, since the film itself offers none. In that sense, this strange teaming of producers Todd Phillips and Joel Silver provides a curious cultural, generational and even political touchstone, one that will enthrall a portion of the high school/college age demographic it depicts, just as it alternately outrages, confounds and disgusts other, presumably older audiences.
The first question posed by this action painting of resolute irresponsibility is: Have teenagers always been this idiotic, or does Project X move the goalposts? The second might be: Did earlier generations approach having a good time with such surly determination? And the third is, definitely: Does this film set the standard for the nausea-inducing use of the unsteady cam?
Like so many other films of this ilk, the motivating factor in the screenplay by first-timer Matt Drake and Michael Bacall (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, the imminent 21 Jump Street) is the urgent necessity for teenage boys, specifically of the dorky persuasion, to get laid. Most particularly, this is what lanky, relatively nice guy Thomas (Thomas Mann) would like for his 18th birthday, so plans are hatched for a major, babe-filled blowout the night his parents leave town for the weekend.
Fortunately or unfortunately, taking things in hand is buddy Costa (Oliver Cooper), a crude, pushy creep who ignores any and all rules, including those requested by Thomas about limiting the party to two or three dozen guests and not allowing them in the house. Costa keeps saying everything will be fine, don’t worry about it, while making sure drugs will flow freely courtesy of a wildly unsavory dealer. In another movie, as played by, say Zach Galifianakis or Jonah Hill, the relentless Costa could have been a funny, over-the-top character, always goading his pal into ever-more-risky territory; here, as adamantly enacted by Cooper, he’s singularly loathsome, venal and without humor, and that he pointedly identifies himself as Jewish won’t make make guardians of the religion’s reputation at all happy.
From Porky‘s to Superbad, the format is predictable, but what Project X does that is new is to drain the sweetness out of it; being a less-than-cool teenager has always involved awkwardness, angst and pain, but there usually is some fun attached, and the better films have not forgotten to make contact with the nearly universal insecurity and apprehension connected to the rite of passage. Here, the desperation level is too high for that; it’s all about getting booze, getting drugs, getting sex, now, now, now. Or, as Costa calculatingly puts it, “Tonight’s about changing the game.”
Project X was reportedly inspired by an incident in Australia a few years back when, thanks to an invitation that got posted online, hundreds of people turned up for a house party, resulting in uncontrollable mayhem and thousands of dollars in damage. That’s the deal here: After a slow start, everyone in North Pasadena between the ages of about 16-18, with a few older trawlers and a handful of younger hopefuls, convenes at Thomas’ for a bacchanal of awesome proportions: The DJs spin, the booze flows, girls gone wild remove their tops to jump in the pool, a dog is sent airborne via multiple balloons, a Santa pinata spills the gift of endless Ecstasy, inhibitions vanish, Dad’s Mercedes ends up underwater, and the drug dealer turns up with a flame thrower.
Amazingly, the cops only visit once and are turned away by some premature legalistic savvy that earmarks Costa as a future lawyer. Eventually, however, the party becomes major media news even as it continues, which is all it takes to justify its existence in this day and age.
The wrap-up does not spare the boys, and Thomas in particular, of life-changing consequences for their deliquency, but a certain self-justifying, feel-good impulse compels the filmmakers to imply that, even if they do nothing further of note in their lives, they’ll always have this. Herein lies the film’s lack of point-of-view, leaving it to the viewer to decide if the import of the evening is a joke, a tragedy, an irony or a victory. Despite a couple of unconvincingly upbeat tacked-on moments at the end, Project X basically reads as nihilistic, as not believing in or standing for anything. Not even fun.
Aesthetically, the film sets the teeth grinding and the eyes aching. Presenting the spectacle from the POV of a home video camera documenting the event for posterity, first-time director Nima Nourizadeh and cinematographer Ken Seng swing the camera around with all the stability of a rowboat in a storm and unsurprisingly induce a strong facsimile of seasickness. The images tend to be dark and random, the music incessant. From a production point of view, one wonders what the set was like over a course of weeks, given the progressive hot-blooded licentiousness so convincingly being depicted, and where it was shot so as not to bother any neighbors. Or maybe they all just joined in.
Opens: March 2 (Warner Bros.)
Production: Silver Pictures/Green Hat Films
Cast: Thomas Mann, Oliver Cooper, Jonathan Daniel Brown, Dax Flame, Kirby Bliss Blanton, Brady Hender, Nick Nervies, Alexis Knapp, Miles Teller, Peter Mackenzie, Caitlin Dulany
Director: Nima Nourizadeh
Screenwriters: Matt Drake, Michael Bacall; story by Michael Bacall
Producer: Todd Phillips
Executive producers: Joel Silver, Scott Budnick, Andrew Rona, Alex Heineman, Marty P. Ewing
Director of photography: Ken Seng
Production designer: Bill Brzeski
Costume designer: Alison McCosh
Editor: Jeff Groth
Music supervisor: Gabe Heller
R rating, 88 minutes
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