“Project X” is to teen-party films what the boot-and-rally is to a night of actual partying. Binge. Purge. Repeat, over and over again, until the morning’s nail-in-skull hangover forces you to question whether what seemed fun at the time was really worth it.
Produced by Todd Phillips (director of “The Hangover” and “Old School”), “Project X” is ineffectively presented as some sort of real, found-footage assembly. It takes place over one exceptionally long night at the home of teenager Thomas Kub (Thomas Mann) — a nebbish-nerd nice guy whose overprotective parents leave for a long anniversary weekend on his birthday.
Quick to capitalize on their absence, Thomas’s best buddies, Costa (Oliver Cooper) and J.B. (Jonathan Daniel Brown) plan a bash to end all bashes — a DJ, karaoke, a bounce house, booze, blunts, sex. And he’ll capture it all on film thanks to Dax (Dax Flame), a mostly unseen cameraman.
But when Costa’s marketing tactics become a little too effective, a crowd of 2,000 people descends on the house and events spiral wildly out of control. Together, the trio must conquer nagging neighbors, cops on patrol, a cock-punching dwarf, a drug dealer who’s obsessive about his garden gnome and his unspoken affection for longtime friend Kirby (Kirby Bliss Blanton).
Freshman director Nima Nourizadeh’s woozy beer-goggle visuals are appropriately swaddled in a sticky blanket of sweat, spirits and a funk-stench of sex. Plus, the trio’s walk on the roof to survey a suburban kingdom — and how it’s being laid to waste — proves a far more breathtaking sight than expected.
Matt Drake and Michael Bacall’s script also draws huge laughs from a pair of lanky “security guards” whose featherweight frames betray their ferocity with truncheons and tazers. Plus, it gets amusing, if familiar, mileage from a few sight gags with a small, stoned dog.
But “Project X” never really stops to catch its breath while trying to shout the last word on the teen-party genre. Look, the problem isn’t with the bared breasts and bad behavior; oh, how quickly the finger-wagging fuddy-duddies forget the ways “Porky’s” and “Risky Business” once spoke to them. It’s that “Project X” never masters the difference between pushing an envelope and using excessive force to cram it down a throat.
By the time it goes bigger and wilder for an anarchic, apocalyptic finish, it feels less like a 21st-century modification of the parade in “National Lampoon’s Animal House” and more like something out of “Lethal Weapon 4.” In other words, trying too hard.
Not helping masters is casting that feels like a Pasadena Playhouse production of “Project X’s” forefathers. The likable Justin Long type? Check. The Seann William Scott smartass? Yep. Jonah Hill before he lost weight? You bet. Even Dax, whom we see only fleetingly, looks like McLovin in a trenchcoat.
By casting toward lookalike stereotypes and inhibiting investment in their friendship, “Project X” wastes generally good work from Mann, Cooper and Brown. Even “Accepted” had a more believable motley crew of friends. At least Cooper skillfully raises verbal hell in an uproarious scene where he flips the script on cops who’ve been called to the house.
Aside from impressive production values (Phillips never met a car he couldn’t impressively trash), “Project X” is far less ambitious and audacious than it thinks it is. At this party, there’s too much booting, not enough rallying.