There’s a lot to dislike about Project X. It’s a teen comedy seemingly designed to celebrate every retrograde “yo, bro” beer-and-bimbos attitude associated with hard-partying men and the teenage boys who badly want to be them. And it was shot found-footage style, à la Cloverfield and other Blair Witch-inspired horror films. But it’s also hard not to admire its apish integrity, if only a little bit. Working from a script co-written by actor-turned-writer Michael Bacall (Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World), first-time director Nima Nourizadeh goes all-in with the idea of capturing boys behaving badly at a house-wrecking party, then goes a little further as the film builds toward a borderline-apocalyptic climax that includes a riot squad and more trashed cars than a demolition derby. He also lets the lead characters behave so awfully that it’s obvious viewers aren’t supposed to like them. (Unless they are, in which case, whoops.)
The occasion of the big bash comes thanks to the 17th birthday party of a Pasadena teen played by baby-faced star Thomas Mann—who, like most of the actors here, shares his first name with his character. A kid so hard to notice, even his dad calls him a loser, Mann gets a shortcut to status thanks to pal Oliver Cooper, a self-styled party animal who constantly complains about missing the wild life he used to lead back in Queens. They’re accompanied by Jonathan Daniel Brown—whose nerdish-oddball role no doubt at one point called for a “Josh Gad type”—and a mostly unseen camera enthusiast played by former YouTube star Dax Flame as they attempt to throw a memorable, drugs-and-booze-fueled party without getting caught. This means securing weed and multiple DJs, and letting potential partygoers know they’ll have unlimited access to “high-school pussy.”
It’s crude in every sense: The film looks like shit, the characters are boors, and it’s as sloppily put-together as the home movie it pretends to be. Project X’s commitment to its crudity almost redeems it, though. Nourizadeh lets his film become gleefully irresponsible as the chaos mounts. If a message emerges, it’s that providing drugs, alcohol, and casual sex will make you popular, and in a hurry. It’s so wrong a sentiment it almost feels right, particularly since so much teen-targeted entertainment rushes to lay on the moralizing. But the fun wears off after a while, particularly when the film asks the audience to care about Mann and his girl-next-door love interest (Kirby Bliss Blanton), the only female character given any sort of dimensionality—and even that is expressed primarily by her willingness to hang out and play videogames like one of the guys. (It would be easy to say Project X objectifies women, if the word “object” didn’t imply too much dignity.) More problematic: The film has more energy than jokes. Brady Hender and Nick Nervies have some funny moments as extremely serious pint-sized security guards, but beyond that, Project X traffics in the usual party-gone-out-of-bounds clichés, unless putting a dog in a moon-bounce counts as trailblazing.