Would it surprise you if I told you the most well-developed character in the Todd Phillips-produced party movie Project X is the party itself? Would it surprise you if I told that’s not a bad thing in the slightest?
Project X is a very different kind of teen sex flick — directed by feature first-timer Nima Nourizadeh — as it dispenses with a lot of party movie cliches and traditions so that it may take other party movie cliches and traditions and engorge them to just-barely-believable lengths. There’s almost nothing that happens in this film that you couldn’t imagine happening at a party at some point somewhere, it’s just that in this universe all of those things happened between about 9 o’clock and whatever time it was the riot police showed up on Thomas’ 17th birthday.
The plot is decidedly simple: Thomas’ parents leave town for the weekend, Thomas’ pal Costa pulls a few stunts to get way too many people to show up for his birthday party, shit spirals out of control. The “story” is set up in a surprisingly effective series of scenes in which we get to know these characters, quickly learn their social station (one step up from rock bottom), and see the party come together, all while their creepy pal films it with his camera. The film doesn’t waste time getting the action started ASAP, as there is a great deal of escalation to cover, and Nourizadeh was at no loss for gags and party goings on to cram into this edit.
From the point at which the party starts the film becomes an almost sculptural event piece, as a very general story moves along amidst montages, episodic gags, and character building scenes. Lest you judge this as lazy filmmaking, know that some shockingly sophisticated storytelling is at work here. Using cell phone footage, our primary POV camera, and all the other scattered video sources that show up, Nourizadeh has crafted an exceptionally paced partying masterpiece that moves in and out of montage with almost unnecessary grace while also consistently developing the various sub-plots of the party- be it the angry neighbor, the general well-being of the house, the state of the leads or their respective poon-quests.
At the center of the film are Thomas, Costa, and J.B played by Thomas Mann, Oliver Cooper, and Jonathan Daniel Brown respectively. Clearly assembled to represent a sort of warped mirror of the Superbad trio, these kids are that crew divided by any heart or sweetness. Thomas is the closest thing to a moral center of the group, but he’s ultimately game for the mischief and gets swept up once the party is out of his control entirely. Costa is an unrepentant douche-bag play on Jonah Hill’s Superbad character, and his “faggot” name-calling and insults have a sharper edge than the almost sweet insensitivity of Hill’s character. That said, while you’ll almost certainly like him less, Costa reads as a much more real teenager whose insecurities are all the more transparent and work well in the context of the film. J.B. is the archetypical fat-kid, though he has some great moments and delivers some great lines when he pops out of the background. Altogether they aren’t the most likable protagonists you’ll ever see, but the film is bigger than them, the way a three-ring circus is bigger than the ringleader or a single clown.
There are other players worth noting, like Alexis Knapp as the school’s alpha-hot-chick or Rob Evers as the irritated neighbor or even Pete Gardner as the creepy party crasher, but really the only supporting actors you need to know about are Nick Nervies and Brady Hender. These two play the child security guards that act as bouncers for the party, and they are consistently hilarious. It will be a crime if they don’t get their own mini-movie spin-off special feature on the DVD or something.
But the film’s secret weapon — the technique that allows it be so free form and simple in terms of plot while remaining narratively satisfying — is that it consistently embeds perhaps dozens of tiny sub-plots and micro-arcs for different situations and characters. Most are simply 1, 2, 3 beat mini-stories, but their consistent and frequent inclusion (and occasional crossover) create a tapestry of set-ups and pay-offs that hold the film together. Everything and everyone from the school’s douchebag jock, to Thomas’ Father’s Benz, to the angry little person (played by Martin Klebba) have their own B/C/D/E/F-plots that give the party a sense of continuity and development, turning the amorphous mass of debauchery and alcohol into an evolving character in the film. It makes this party feel real, even as it stuffs it full of the unlikely and presents in any way necessary to get the crowd laughing.
Ultimately what seals Project X as more than just a comedic diversion, to the point of being a full-on classic party movie, is a third act that expertly wrenches up the chaos and destructiveness of the movie. While every trailer is spoiling the daylights out of just how crazy it gets, none capture the perfect pacing and escalation that turns the climax into a Emmerichian disaster-movie in and of itself. No, the ground doesn’t not rent in two and spit out the demons of hell, but the amount of anarchy and destruction packed into a single suburban street block is pretty intense. Ironically, every bit of it feels more dangerous and hard-edged than anything in either of Phillips’ Hangover films, despite dealing with teenagers around a pool instead of grown men in foreign countries. That the climax of the movie unfolds against the entirety of Metallica’s most classic metal song is icing on this vomit-soaked and fire-scorched cake.
Now of course there is the undeniable fact that Project X is a vacuum of morality and social progress. The film adds nothing positive to the dismal history of party movies and their development of female characters, but the heightened, narrow perspective of the film at least roots this laziness in reality. These are teenage guys still tripping over their own neglected boners, gasping for girls the way a suffocating man gasps for air. Frankly, suggesting their minds would be fixated on anything beyond pussy would be unrealistic, though there comes a point at which I would have preferred the film dispense with its paltry attempt at female character-building (no fault of actress Kirby Bliss Blanton) and just gone for the completely myopic, teenage boy point-of-view. As it is, virtually every female is a either a set-of tits in the pool or a gyrating piece of set dressing as far as the film is concerned, the misogynistic thoroughness of which is made only more clear by the presence of Thomas’ lovely, three-dimension lady friend.
And before I fail to mention it, note that a truly gratuitous number of kids are drinking underage, doing drugs, and sloppily groping each other at this party, and there’s not an apologetic frame in this film’s entire runtime. I don’t typically insert myself into reviews, but I feel it’s important to note that not only do I not drink or do drugs, but that I’ve never even been to a party that would even remotely resemble the real-life basis of something like this. I’d never spend a moment with the people depicted in the film, nor would I be caught dead at any event they’d throw, but that didn’t stop me from appreciating the spectacle and structure of this movie. Project X entirely glamorizes the alcohol and the ecstasy, the drunk and the high, and it’s an admirable set of balls that keeps it from pulling some unearned, unbelieved cheap lesson at the end. No, from a tipsy teenager’s point of view, consequences are for tomorrow (or at least till after the credits roll).
It should be obvious enough that shamelessness is this movie’s modus operandi , but it’s important to note that this isn’t a cop out so much as the entire point of the movie. It isn’t just presenting “the craziest fuckin’ PARTY EVER WOO-HOO!!1!.” Instead, it’s is portraying the party every nerd, geek, and loser thinks the cool kids are having somewhere else, and then dialing that party all the way up to the level just before people start riding dinosaurs.
The found footage approach (or verité filmmaking, if you will) seals the very narrow perspective that makes this whole thing work. It’s a fantasy- a really cool party that has become legend after a ten-year telephone game of high schoolers telling stories between classes. It’s for this reason that this gratuitous party film isn’t entirely devoid of literary merit, even if reading too much subtext into it would be foolish. That said, it’s flat ass wrong to suggest this film wasn’t assembled with a very real vision and clear mission that permeates the writing, directing, and editing.
There’s certainly been (and will continue to be) some brouhaha concerning the films morality, and it’s definitely an issue worth examining. But as with all “will someone please think of the children?!” bullshit, it’s not an argument worth torching the movie over. Project X by no means represents a positive collection of imagery for young people, but more than likely neither was the last rap album you listened to or reality TV show you watched. As easily dismissed as it may be, there is art in Project X (as there is in Jackass or video games or whatever else is pissing off cranky old people this week) and drawing the line in front of this little party movie is ridiculous.
Exiting the theater I called Project X “the Ben-Hur of party movies,” and it’s something I stand by. You don’t see this many extras assembled anymore without digital trickery, you don’t get this feeling of legitimate scale or mayhem, and you don’t see this kind of quality applied to a party movie very often. My fingers are crossed that Nourizadeh blossoms into an interesting filmmaker, as his ability to create a sense of scale by exploiting space and activity in this film is impressive. Hell, I’d even be curious to see how his filmmaking-as-sculpture style would scale up if a sequel were to jack-up the size of the party even more. I have a feeling we might get to see, as Project X plays well to a riotous audience and is definitely a crowd-pleaser. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this become the Animal House for the YouTube generation.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars