“Please respect my house,” says a dad (Peter Mackenzie) on his way out the door for a weekend. “And the Mercedes, it’s off limits.”
Right. For whatever reason, Thomas (Thomas Mann) will be on his own for his seventeenth birthday. More specifically, he’ll be at a party in that same house his father has instructed him to respect, surrounded by hundreds of fellow high schoolers and sundry locals, all looking to get wasted.
Yes, you’ve seen Project X before, when it was called Porky’s or American Pie or Superbad or even Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules. The gimmick in Nima Nourizadeh’s version is its found footage look, in which the pitching camera and puking teens find something like harmony. This look is instigated here by Thomas’ buddy Costa (Oliver Cooper), who introduces himself as your “host for the evening,” the planner for Thomas’ epic party. “My dick is gonna get wet tonight,” he tells you via the camera, just before he’s discovered at his locker by a frowning and irrelevant teacher. “We’re shooting a little birthday film,” he over-explains, before he has the cameraman, Dax (Dax Flame, who appears in a mirror or two) follow him into the bathroom where Thomas is showering, that is, waiting to be humiliated.
Costa’s mission notwithstanding, Project X is less about sex than it is about boys fussing about sex. Or, to borrow from Thomas’ dad, they fret about what’s “off limits” and how to get there. Of course, the boys—who hope the party will make them “popular”—are stupid and careless, or easily distracted. Indeed, the distractions make up the bulk of the film, per the found footage formula, such that the movie devolves into a series of episodes that might come in any order.
That’s not to say the movie doesn’t produce a climax, when an angry and affronted drug dealer (is there any other kind in these movies?) shows up with a flame-thrower and literally attacks the North Pasadena block where Thomas lives (it goes without saying that none of these proceedings would have proceeded in a neighborhood less… um, white). It is to say that this climax—which is shot in part from a helicopter news camera, as the cops have arrived on scene—has pretty much nothing to do with what comes before or after.
What comes before is a lot of fussing and a few convenient encounters. When the boys go shopping for snacks, they run into football star Miles (Miles Teller), who promises to bring booze (which he does, in a huge, over-equipped private bus, the kind Diddy might use) and vapid pretty girl Alexis (Alexis Knapp), who brings along other vapid pretty girls. They hire a couple of security guards, two children of color who carry tasers and cell phones. And they visit with neighbors to alert them to the coming noise.
Once the festivities are underway and Costa is congratulating himself for the numbers of guests, Thomas is left to careen between feeling thrilled and afraid, as the house is soon breached, along with the Mercedes. He lusts after dark-haired Alexis, but actually likes the blond girl, Kirby (Kirby Bliss Blanton). In between his appearances, the camera catches up with other partiers, rendered as body parts. Girls strip, boys fall down, kids engage with leaf-blowers and popsicles, a neighbor calls the cops. When an Angry Little Person (Martin Klebba)—so designated in the credits—is stuffed into the oven, he then makes it his business to scramble through the crowd, punching every crotch he can see. (At this point, Dax’s camera is aptly aimed very low.)
If it’s unhelpful to complain about the lack of plot in Project X, it may be worth thinking through how it gets itself back on a mundane story path anyway. Why is it that movies like Project X bother with plot at all? Previous versions have offered protagonists in search of identity or community, endless adolescence or some semblance of romance. This one, which boasts a producing credit for The Hangover director Todd Phillips, mostly eschews all that, until it doesn’t. If the presumption is that the audience just wants to see shot contests and naked breasts, who is it that might remotely want to see Thomas make up with Kirby or earn points with his dad?
It’s easiest to guess that such rudimentary concluding helps the movie feel like a movie, rather than, say, a YouTube video. But this rationale only underlines the brutal lack of imagination at work here, that all the potentially uncommon and hectic excess must finally be recontained and delivered into a recognizable package. It only points out what’s “off limits,” in order to end up within those same limits.