Project X (United States, 2012)

March 02, 2012
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Project X Poster

The moral of this story is: No matter how trustworthy he may be, never leave a teenager home alone while you go away for the weekend.

Project X purports to offer a new twist on a very old tale: the out-of-control house party. Variations of this story, good and bad, have dotted the cinematic landscape since bad taste and raunchiness emerged from the closet with the death of the Hays Code to put on a toga. The staples are all in place here, from the stereotyped characters to the formula plotline to the copious T&A. Project X offers no surprises, but movies of this sort aren't supposed to be narrative masterpieces. The unique aspect applied by first-time director Nima Nourizadeh is to present this movie from the first person perspective, using the overexposed "found footage" technique. Hitherto confined primarily to horror movies, this style - of using a patchwork of faux amateur footage cobbled together to tell the entire story - has increasingly found its way into more mainstream endeavors.

Project X's first-person verisimilitude is the movie's primary strength and most damning weakness. It is singularly effective in replicating the energy and chaos of a house party gone wild with excess. In the process, however, it loses sight of its human protagonists. The chief character in this movie is the party. And that's fine as far as it goes, especially if you're looking for a quasi-documentary about a mythical social phenomenon and urban legend. The puny people are almost annoyances and providing them with names and pre-packaged backstories is unnecessary. This makes it virtually impossible to become invested in any of them. And Project X's most familiar subplot - about the guy who discovers his true love to be his tomboy best friend - is reduced to a few unconvincing clips. It's disappointing not to get more of an emotional lift from the payoff.

Nourizadeh cheats more frequently than most first-person directors, often keeping the shots so "professional" (i.e., not shaky) that we forget they're being shot by an amateur dogging the feet of our protagonists. There are no chase scenes, so we're not forced to endure the insane bouncing of the images as the cameraman runs. This is an effective way to present the chaos of the party, looking from the inside out instead of from the outside in. Also, because no one's life is in danger from paranormal beings, it doesn't strain credulity that filming continues.

The three main characters are friends whose lives unfold far from the orbit of the social in-crowd: Thomas (Thomas Mann), the geek; Costa (Oliver Cooper), the rude, bossy jackass; and J.B. (Jonathan Daniel Brown), the fat one. There's a fourth guy, Dax (Dax Flame), a member of the AV club who is recruited to film a-day-in-the-life of Thomas on the occasion of his 17th birthday. Although Dax is around for the entire film, we see him only twice (both times in a mirror) and he bears an eerie resemblance to one of the Columbine killers. Thomas' parents are going away for the weekend, leaving the house to him for a "small" birthday party. Costa, who is in charge of the event, ignores his friend's request to keep the list of invitees under 50. Instead, he uses social media to make sure everyone in school (and beyond) learns the time and address. When it comes to parties and teenagers, one rule applies: If you hold it, they will come... And come they do (in more ways than one).

It starts out small - a gathering of a few buddies: Thomas, Costa, J.B., Dax, and Thomas' best female friend, Kirby (Kirby Bliss Blanton). Soon, however, they descend on Thomas' suburban house like a plague of locusts - drinking, dancing, topless locusts who fill the house to overflowing, clog the pool, and create such a commotion that the neighbors call the cops. And that's before the Ecstasy starts getting passed around, the chandelier comes crashing down, and the nutcase with the blowtorch arrives.

One thing should be remembered. Like video games, parties demand interaction to be enjoyable. The simple act of watching rapidly loses its vicarious appeal, and that's one reason why Project X drags at times. The lack of even moderately interesting characters means viewers have nothing to latch onto. Watching Project X, one gains a new appreciation of successful movies of this sort.

Project X will commonly be referred to as a "teenage sex comedy," but this is a partially misleading categorization. The "teenage" part is accurate, although most of the actors are in their 20s. The "sex" part is equally on-target; there are more bare breasts than in any recent movie I can recall, although the level of raunchiness is down a notch from other films bearing Todd Phillips' name (he's Project X's producer). The term "comedy" is where the inaccuracy occurs. This is not an outrageous movie. That's not because jokes bomb, but because the screenplay limits their inclusion. Project X has all the trappings of a comedy but, on some level, it wants to be taken seriously. No, there's no hard-hitting dramatic material, but still...

Ultimately, Project X is an example of why gimmicks rarely work, especially once the new shine has worn off. Had this movie been "told straight," it would likely have been a little sweet, a little naughty, and forgettable. Presented in this way, it loses the first quality. Now it's just naughty and forgettable. The style trades off sweetness for a "you-are-there" sensory overload that quickly grows stale. Toss "found footage" movies into the bin with 3-D. Unless there's a compelling reason to apply the technique, it's more likely to hurt than improve the product. At least in this case, there's no surcharge.

Project X (United States, 2012)

Director: Nima Nourizadeh
Cast: Thomas Mann, Oliver Cooper, Jonathan Daniel Brown, Dax Flame, Kirby Bliss Blanton, Alexis Knapp
Screenplay: Matt Drake and Michael Bacall
Cinematography: Ken Seng
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers
Run Time: 1:28
U.S. Release Date: 2012-03-02
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content, Nudity, Drugs)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1