Project X is assembled from the leftover parts of other films, as many enthusiastic pre-screeners have said. "It's like Superbad on crack!" boasts one of the commercials. (Can we please retire saying that things are like other things "on crack" when all we really mean is that the new thing is messier or more depraved?)
It's true that there are three awkward teens in search of a life-defining party, just like in Superbad, but this time there's a handheld camera and the writing is lazier and meaner. The cast features mostly unknowns. There's JB, the lovable fat sidekick (Jonathan Daniel Brown) who we are told is "working on his diabetes" by hypersexual ringleader Costa (Oliver Cooper). You might recognize Thomas (Thomas Mann) from last year's It's Kind of a Funny Story. It's his parents' house that ends up getting trashed. He even looks a little like Cameron from Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and like Cameron, he will have to confront his father about a damaged sports car. It's Thomas's birthday and his parents are going away for the weekend. Spearheaded by Costa's efforts, the three begin planning for what turns out to be a highly publicized party, amidst Thomas's nervous hesitation. "Fifty people tops, okay?" What could go wrong?
Project X borrows the cinéma vérité effect of other recent films (in this context, that's French for Cloverfield meets Paranormal Activity). It's so in the style of recent horror and not comedy that for the first half of the film I kept waiting for a monster to jump out and eat everyone on screen. (No such luck! Ha ha.)
The conceit is that one kid named Dax (Dax Flame) is able to film every important plot turn, but the movie is clever in the way it explains his intrusively voyeuristic behavior: He's weird. He may have killed his parents. With such astounding sound quality (I don't understand, were the cops miked before they got to the scene, or...?), slow-motion dance sequences, underwater titty footage and truly professional post-production editing, you'd think Dax would be skilled enough to hold the camera steadier. But I digress.
I hate to be the fuddy-duddy tasked with pointing this out, but why have the filmmakers (including producer Todd Phillips of The Hangover) gone out of their way to make everyone so mean-spirited and thoughtless? All of the women could have been replaced by blow-up sex dolls and not much would be lost. We get it; horny guys like hot chicks and normal looking girls have no value. The girls of Superbad were pretty, but they also had souls and looked like real teenagers. Project X thinks that it can hand a hot girl a videogame controller and the rest will just write itself.
It's 2012, and the kids are still calling each other fags in that flippantly hurtful way of meaning "lame" or "cowardly." As much as I want to avoid being cranky, I can't overlook the film's underlying messages: Ordinary girls have no value, gay=bad and of course you're nothing if you're not popular in high school. Finally, is there something inherently funny about an angry Little Person punching everybody in the balls or is it dumb and awful? Honestly, I don't know. This might just be one of those instances of my personal bias against physical comedy.
Some good things: The sequences leading up to the fiery explosions promised in the trailer have the allure of a well-orchestrated train wreck, and there are a few funny moments involving a garden gnome and a couple of pre-teen security guards. The home video camera style is well executed, or else it's easy to ignore after a few minutes. The party looks like a genuinely good time, and there's something to be said for a film that delights in delight itself. In the end, though, the viewing experience is like leafing through party pictures on a Facebook photo album: It's fun for a second, but ultimately empty.
Project X continues at the Carmike 12.