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The House Party From Hell

MOVIE REVIEW
Project X (2012)

Project-x-thomas-mann-jonathan-daniel-brown-oliver-cooper
Beth Dubber/Warner Brothers Pictures

The new teen comedy “Project X” is definitely not to be confused with the 1980s Matthew Broderick thriller of the same name. This “Project X” can be more aptly described as project mayhem, the “Fight Club”-style manifesto that wreaks havoc on property supposedly in the name of fun but which quickly turns serious. What begins as an epic but manageable 17th birthday party for high-school student Thomas (Thomas Mann) — organized by his friend Costa (Oliver Cooper) with another friend named JB (Jonathan Daniel Brown) in tow — quickly turns into a riotous night of partying, with sex, drugs and chaos in plentiful supply. The day is presented as a found-footage film shot by the mysterious cameraman Dax (Dax Flame), but as the party progresses and turmoil takes over, shots are taken from other cameras, including phones and TV crews, which chronicle the disintegration of the festivities, the destruction of the house and the devastation of the neighborhood.

“Project X” is produced by Todd Phillips of “The Hangover” fame, and it shares that film’s crude tone and testosterone-soaked antics. Unlike a number of successful teen-centric films that successfully showed the clumsy, awkward transition from adolescence to adulthood and had the sense to include some heart and insight along the way (such as recent entries like “Superbad” and “Adventureland” and older films like “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “House Party”), “Project X” seems to have been primarily calculated to shock and offend. Coarse humor can work, but even a film like the classic college comedy “Animal House” offset its debauchery with playful scenes and witty asides. And “Chronicle,” another recent teen film using found footage, managed to present a recognizable story about the highs and lows of teenage life that viewers could relate to despite the film’s fantastical premise. In contrast, “Project X” often just feels like a collection of set pieces bolted together to get easy laughs rather than a coherent story about high-school kids coming of age, which is what the film seems to be aiming for.

First-time director Nima Nourizadeh and screenwriters Matt Drake and Michael Bacall move things along swiftly and keep the running time brief, so that we barely notice that the film is mostly just a series of gags. Some of the bits of business they contrive are amusing (like the mysterious garden gnome that appears in different places) while others feel seriously misjudged (shutting a midget in an oven!). Ironically, some of the quieter moments away from the noise of the party work best, including a funny confession to camera from Thomas to his parents, echoing the famous monologue to camera from “The Blair Witch Project.” A lot of the time though, “Project X” is simply loud and vulgar for the sake of it, a predictable assault on the senses and sensibilities of the audience.

Interestingly, this film closely resembles the 1980s John Hughes comedy “Weird Science” (produced by Joel Silver, the executive producer of “Project X”), another tale focused on teens having the party to end all parties, trashing the family home, standing up to authority figures, and going to extreme lengths to seduce women. The ultimate lesson of both films is that the characters learn that life is about being bold and taking risks. Call it the parties-as-personal-growth movie: You may have ruined the family house, scuppered your educational and career prospects and committed criminal acts, but you will have lived life to the full for one brief moment and had your 15 minutes of fame! But whereas “Weird Science” was at least aware of its absurdity and featured protagonists who were wiser but still chastened by their experience, “Project X” feels like easy gratification and flattery for teens, showing that a party where anything goes is the key to high-school popularity, and that popularity is the most important thing to attain, a myth that “Chronicle” saw right through, with the popular cliques turning on the outsider among them in an instant.

For anyone wanting to see more memorable films about teenagers having life changing experiences over a single day, they’d be advised to check out “American Graffiti” and “Dazed and Confused,” which are classics of the teen movie genre. Both these films expertly combine comedy and drama, featuring a host of well-written characters and convincing situations that are more likely to echo the everyday experiences of viewers. These two films also repay repeated viewings, offering bittersweet odes to adolescence, which cannot be said of this new teen film, which offers mostly fleeting pleasures. Like the party in the film, “Project X” might offer some raucous fun while it lasts, but ultimately there isn’t much to hold on to when it’s all over.

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