Project X is one of those movies I suspect really, really wants certain people to give it bad reviews. Produced by Todd Phillips, the director of the Hangover movies and Old School, this teen comedy has set its sights on nothing less than being the most shameless, most titillating crazy-party film ever—and if it offends folks who can't take a joke, then all the better. There's no question Project X has its moments of wonderfully inappropriate humor, but in trying so hard to push your buttons the film doesn't do much to make you care. It's like a full-length version of those scenes in wacky comedies where the young characters do shocking things in public and they cut to the old prudes who don't understand what's up with the kids these days. (If it's not clear, in this analogy, you're the old prude.)
The film is directed by first-timer Nima Nourizadeh, and unfortunately everybody involved decided that this story could be told through the found-footage gimmick. And so we meet Thomas (Thomas Mann), a high school nerd who's going to have a small get-together for his 17th birthday while his parents are out of town. His ultra-obnoxious buddy Costa (Oliver Cooper, channeling Vince Vaughn or Jonah Hill circa Superbad) decides that they need to set their sights a little higher, and soon everyone at the school is invited over to Thomas' house, expecting some huge blowout extravaganza. Naturally, things get out of hand fast, but will Thomas realize that he should be with his childhood friend Kirby (Kirby Bliss Blanton) rather than hoping to hook up with the school's most popular girls?
At this late date, I remain a defender of the found-footage shtick if it works for the film, but in the case of Project X it's utilized pretty poorly. (For one thing, why do we see multiple viewpoints of certain scenes if there's only one camera? And, two, c'mon, who actually would spend all this time filming these events without annoying everybody around him?) But those kinds of logistical questions aren't the sort that the filmmakers probably spent a lot of time pondering. No, they're far too busy determining how many square inches of naked female breasts they can fit into the film's second half once the party starts descending into a druggy orgy. The answer, by the way, is a lot, which will appeal to the very male (and possibly too young to be going to an R-rated movie) audience that will be excited that they get to see boobs on a giant screen.
In the past, Phillips has at least tried to mask his characters' pathetic arrested development by making them the butt of the joke. (Part of what's great about The Hangover was that we knew those guys were jerks.) But Project X mostly plays like an unabashed delivery system for the "naughty" pleasures teen boys desperately crave: sex, drugs, parties that go all night. There are some vague attempts at commentary regarding the agony of adolescence—peer pressure, acceptance, the terror of hormones, the uncertainty of looming adulthood—but those mostly fill in the gaps between all the "crazy" stuff going on.
I just wish it were crazier. Actually, it's all relatively crazy—there probably won't be another film this year to feature a dwarf in an oven, a dude with a flamethrower, and two dogs humping—but when you don't know (or care about) any of the central characters, the shenanigans end up feeling like little more than stand-alone "can you believe we got away with this?!?" episodes with little impact. And that's not to mention the movie's generally lame bro-speak where people hurl homophobic putdowns at one another because, hey, that's the way kids talk, folks. Instead of a script, the filmmakers seemed to come up with a list of items that would freak out parents and conservative watchdogs and tried to include them all.
To be fair, you have to hand it to Project X for how it strips away much of the character development and all the stakes from teen comedies like Superbad and Dazed and Confused so it can get as quickly to The Party as possible. And its relentlessly antisocial posturing does generate some big laughs on occasion. (If you try that hard that often, it's just about impossible not to spark a chuckle or two, right?) But as much as the movie wants to be some sort of "statement" about The Way Kids Are Today, it ends up diminishing its subjects (and its target audience) rather than celebrating them. Thomas remains a sweet geek, Costa remains a repellant moron, and their overweight friend remains the guy whom everybody else mocks. None of these people resembles any teen anybody really knows. And thank god for that.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.