Teens will cheer while grown-ups cringe at “Project X,” an outrageous mock-doc account of the ultimate high-school house party caught on tape. In attempting to warn parents, the ratings board has inadvertently endorsed producer Todd Phillips’ gleefully irresponsible stunt, promising “crude and sexual content throughout, nudity, drugs, drinking, pervasive language, reckless behavior and mayhem — all involving teens” beneath the film’s well-deserved R rating. With its cast of unfamiliar faces and catalog of underage wish-fulfillment fantasies, this game-changing instant classic will doubtless inspire imitators, onscreen and in backyards everywhere, en route to redefining what a new generation expects of its mice-will-play movies.
From “Frat House” to “The Hangover,” everything in Phillips’ career has been leading to this. Enlisting musicvideo director Nima Nourizadeh to spearhead the project, Phillips instinctively demonstrates how to position rowdy hyperbole for today’s auds, eschewing the traditional single-camera approach for a faux found-footage conceit that underscores the anything-can-happen sense of anarchy the story requires.
Thomas Kub (Thomas Mann, the most experienced of the non-pro leads) is your average high-school senior in nearly all respects, except perhaps the size of his backyard, which is big enough to accommodate a dozen friends, a wayward Playboy model, a pool and roughly 1,500 complete strangers. It just so happens that Thomas’ parents (Peter Mackenzie and Caitlin Dulany) are celebrating their anniversary on the same night their son turns 17, barely thinking twice before leaving the house in his usually responsible hands.
And why should they worry? As Papa Kub puts it, “He’s a sweet kid, but he’s a loser.” Thomas isn’t popular enough to throw a huge party — which is precisely why he and misfit friends Costa (brash, charismatic newcomer Oliver Cooper), Dax (Dax Flame, barely seen) and J.B. (Jonathan Daniel Brown, the runt of the bunch) decide to invite practically everyone they know and then some.
A quarter past nine, it’s just the four of them, plus lifelong gal pal Kirby (Kirby Bliss Blanton), sitting around playing videogames in Thomas’ living room. Then the guests start to arrive, looking less like classmates from his North Pasadena high school than the wet-T-shirt-ready twentysomethings of their dreams. The guys see this night as a “game changer,” a chance to boost their popularity at a school where hardly anyone pays them any mind, but mostly it’s a chance to get laid, and the film shares their almost single-minded focus on hooking up.
Here’s where “Project X” differs from “Risky Business,” “Can’t Hardly Wait” and the countless house-party movies that have come before: By capturing the bedlam from the p.o.v. of Dax’s HD camera (plus a handful of lower-res smartphones), the film not only immerses us in the action but also encourages a lecherous “Girls Gone Wild” aesthetic, with the cameras never far when ladies are willing to be indiscreet.
The conflict, such as it is, arrives in the form of Thomas’ anxiety at losing control of the event. Naturally, he’s torn between Kirby and girl-of-his-dreams Alexis (Alexis Knapp), and there’s added stress as an angry neighbor (Rob Evors) threatens to call the cops, and an even angrier drug dealer (Rick Shapiro) comes looking for his stash of stolen ecstacy pills. But the film is adamantly, almost insistently in favor of escalating things, pairing giddy bump-and-grind B-roll with oversexed party tunes (a trick recognizable from MTV spring-break specials) to amplify the thrill of watching young people do things they’re sure to regret later.
Under-21 auds will be more than grateful for the opportunity to vicariously experience such a party, where the booze brings itself and girls get topless on command. Adults, on the other hand, are likely to be horrified at what amounts to an “Anarchist Cookbook”-like guide to getting down. Still, “Project X” is about as far from a cautionary tale as these things get. There’s no moralizing and minimal consequences for what, somewhere along the way, jumps from plausible disorder to full-blown, Altamont-scale pandemonium, somewhere between the crotch-punching midget (Martin Klebba) and the guy with the flame-thrower.
By trading conventionally staged scenes for on-the-fly voyeurism, the mock-doc conceit more realistically mirrors the way a normal person might experience — or at least, recall — such insanity. Likewise, the casting of unfamiliar, untrained teens in the principal roles allows writers Matt Drake and Michael Bacall to skimp on character scenes, while editor Jeff Groth uses jump cuts to skip over implausibilities, and select glimpses to suggest a much bigger crowd than is actually present. Dax’s all-seeing camera takes greater liberties every step of the way (though sober, his handheld lensing can be woozy-making), to the point that the film’s third act sources much of its footage from TV news ‘copters drawn to the scene.