Project X isn’t a movie as much as it seeks to be an experience, an exhausting, occasionally thrilling look through the eyes of a trio of high school have-nots as they try to elevate their social status by throwing the mother of all parties. Birthday boy Thomas (Thomas Mann), a shy, awkward 17 year old, is coerced into hosting said party on a weekend his parents are away by his two best friends — chubby, bespectacled nerdlinger JB (Jonathan Daniel Brown) and crass loudmouthed jackass Costa (Oliver Cooper). Despite swearing to Thomas that they’re going to keep it small and intimate, the party’s numbers grow and grow as the night goes on, until it explodes into a massive debacle full of deafening DJ’d music, hordes of writhing teenagers, and a decadent swirl of drugs, booze, and sex.
If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Despite its best efforts to become something new, Project X borrows the same tired tropes as every other teenager-infested, angsty fame-and-fortune flick out there. The characters are pathetically one-note and blatantly derivative, each one a simple pastiche of cliches swiped from better films. The clarion echoes of films like Fast Times At Ridgemont High, Can’t Hardly Wait, Say Anything and the entire John Hughes oeuvre can be heard throughout the film, so much so that at times it feels like Project X isn’t even trying to be original — it just wants to get the characterization out of the way so it can get to the partying. Thomas is part Preston Meyers, part Mike Ratner. JB is a mishmash of William Lichter and Brian Johnson, with a little bit of Fogell mixed in for good measure. And Costa is every abrasive, asshole friend you’ve ever seen on screen — Eli from The Girl Next Door, with a little Kenny Fisher thrown in for good measure. There’s even a low-rent (and completely irrelevant) Mike Dexter character and a corresponding too-cool college guy, played by Miles Teller (the hickabilly goober in the Footloose remake).
As for female characters, they’re there… but they barely matter. Mainly there’s Thomas’ old best bud, the introspective and cute Kirby (Kirby Bliss Blanton), and the vapid school sexpot Alexis (Alexis Knapp). If you can guess how that dynamic plays out, you don’t win a damn thing because you’d have to be mentally defective to not see it coming. The female characters are given the shortest shrift, since the characters make it clear from the get-go that all they want to do is see some tits and get their dicks wet. It’s the kind of gross oversimplification and objectification of women that’s unfortunately common in high school movies, yet manages to be even more obnoxious and tiresome than usual here. Most of the girls in the film have little or nothing to say, and are passively and listlessly waiting for their cue to shriek and/or take their tops off, before slinking into the background of a grungy crowd shot. It’s not that I have anything against naked women, believe me, it’s that it’s done so predictably, in such a passionless fashion, and with such complete, blundering artlessness that it’s hard to feel anything beyond annoyance.
The paper-thin characters are symptomatic of films like The Hangover, no surprise since Project X is produced by Todd Phillips. Here, director Nima Nourizadeh and writers Matt Drake and Michael Bacall don’t really give a shit what you think about their characters — they just want to show the party. The party is the film, and everything else is just incidental. And as for that shindig, it’s fucking impressive. They basically ripped the leash off of every party scene you’ve ever seen, flooded its veins with crank, and set it on fire. The party at Thomas’ house rapidly explodes, becoming completely out of control until it literally escalates into a riot, replete with SWAT teams, burning buildings, tear gas and flash-bang grenades. Not to mention homemade flamethrowers, midgets being stuffed into ovens (yes, really), and cars being driven into swimming pools. It’s all set to a surprisingly, genuinely great soundtrack, a thumping, teeth-rattling mix of hip hop and techno with some superb doses of rock and metal thrown in at just the right times. It’s one of the more well-designed soundscapes and each track is timed marvelously with its place in the film.
It’s frequently entertaining as hell, at least in the beginning, but there’s only so much purposeless adolescent debauchery I can watch before my mind starts to wander, and that’s exactly what happened. The problem with Project X is that even though you can sense the pulse of the party throbbing and threatening to give itself an embolism, even as the drinks pour themselves and the clothes fly off and even when a giant stash of ecstasy pills shows up, the film still never goes anywhere. It’s all without purpose or focus, and once the jokes wear thin (and to be fair, it’s very funny in parts), it rapidly becomes little more than a loud, flashy orgy of aimless excess. In the end, when the ashes settle back to earth and the headaches clear and the sun shines upon the wasteland created in the party’s aftermath, nothing has been gained. No real lessons have been imparted. Our heroes gain some notoriety and get into some trouble, Thomas gets the girl, but the entire evening is almost without real consequence.
Nima Nourizadeh wanted to make a party movie — one that would eclipse all others, and that’s fine. And as far as the party itself is concerned, he succeeded. The party is 60 minutes of absolute teenage mayhem, a raucous, uncontrolled wildfire that burns hot and bright. Yet even in spite of the nonstop chaos, after about thirty minutes it became almost boring. Even the most action-packed film ultimately fails if its characters fail to engage, and that’s where Project X fails miserably. The three leads are affable enough (well, except for Costa, who I wanted to beat to death), but there’s so little about them that resonates that it’s hard to ever really give a damn about whether they succeed or fail, and there’s no real story to speak of beyond the raging bacchanal. Project X is certainly one hell of a party, but it’s not much of a movie.