Project X, Nima Nourizadeh

‘Project X’ at 10: The Decadent Found Footage Party Movie That Killed Bro Comedy

Project X’s consequence-free fantasy remains its most memorable accomplishment. It validates those whose ideal of adolescence is unfiltered and decadent.

Project X
Nima Nourizadeh
Warner Bros.
2 March 2012

Two trends appeared in American commercial filmmaking during the late 2000s and early ’10s. One was the wave of genre low-budget films shot under the pretenses of found footage, and the other was a two-way shift in the male-oriented bro comedy. Each proved very profitable, but why were the found footage and bro comedy film genres successful in this era?

Found footage earned its mainstream moment with Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s The Blair Witch Project in 1999. This horror film centers around three film students trying to shoot a documentary about the aptly titled legend. The Blair Witch Project was the first film to present its characters as “real-life” figures. The trend in found footage reached its peak with Matt Reeves’ 2008 horror film Cloverfield, with a similar marketing campaign centered on plot speculation.

With the releases of Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity (2007) and Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza’s REC (2007), horror became the technique’s natural accommodation, providing the illusion to the viewer that what was happening onscreen, featuring non-professional actors and jump scares, was “real”. This storytelling method spread to other film genres like sci-fi, with the success of Josh Trank’s Chronicle (2012) about a group of teenagers who suddenly possess superpowers.

Meanwhile, the male-oriented raunchy comedy was becoming more… introspective, thanks to a house of Judd Apatow-produced films like Superbad (Greg Mottola, 2007), Knocked Up (Apatow, 2007) and The 40-Year-Old Virgin (Apatow, 2005). While these films ranged from low-brow to middle-brow in scope, they embraced the newer masculinities of their main characters through their aspirations, be it to lose their virginity young and old, or become better men because they evolved into unexpected fathers.

Todd Phillips’ The Hangover (2007) flipped those values and become the highest-grossing R-rated comedy of all time. The Hangover is premised around the aftermath of a raucous bachelor party, in which the joke is that the groom is suddenly missing and his buddies are too dumb to figure out where he is. It deftly mixes gross-out humor with the thrills of an Agatha Christie novel. In contrast to the Apatow films, Phillips’ was pure raunch, its characters throwing insults left and right to the point that retrospective op-eds have reevaluated the essence of The Hangover as problematic and celebrate it as the beginning of the end of an era in film.

If, however, a review from The Independent would have you think The Hangover is the low point of bro films, then the fingers cannot be pointed at that film for causing its genre’s irrelevance in our more culturally-attuned times. That title goes to Project X.

Combining the found footage hijinks with the foulness of the Apatow-Phillips wagon, Nima Nourizadeh’s Project X (2012) would be the ultimate result. Project X focuses on a trio of middle-class suburban teenagers celebrating Thomas’ (Thomas Mann) 17th birthday. Thomas’ friend Costa (Oliver Cooper) thinks it’s a good idea to host a large gathering and have someone capture it on video and share it with friends.

Project X plays into a recurring gimmick like its peers in the found footage genre. It relies on a social media campaign featuring users who have just seen the video before it was released to critics and wider audiences, and they are commenting on the insanity that spirals from what they see. Project X is also a party film in the vein of Greg Mottola’s Superbad (2007), where the characters are templates from characters seen in other high school movies. While a commercial hit, Project X was critically panned for its obnoxious acting, flirting with the found footage aesthetic through little substance, and its semi-pornographic and sexist depiction of women as potential trophies. The claim that Project X was reckless and irresponsible is only exacerbated when viewers were inspired to make their parties in the vein of this found footage film.

While much of the criticism is valid, it only scratches the surface of why such a film, with a grandiosity captured on a pocket-sized device, remains appealing to this day. Project X was released ten years ago, and looking back, it becomes more of a time capsule than an actual film. It succeeds in that aspect by playing into the artificial and bare-bones foundation of the found-footage technique. 

One could watch found footage and be pedantic about how naturalistic the handheld camera work is and how much it must abide by specific rules of storytelling, à la the Dogme 95 movement. Film theorist David Bordwell criticized the template for vaguely winking at the notion that much of the content was “discovered”, pointing out that Josh Trank’s Chronicle (2012) and Daniel Stamm’s The Last Exorcism (2010) don’t allow themselves to show why they exist in the first place. 

With Project X, the content does adhere to this gimmick, except the camerawork is crowdsourced and retained in memory. Of all the found footage films I have seen during this period, Project X‘s is the least heightened, if you will, because an event like an out-of-control party is probable to the imagination. The gritty outlook, as provided by a weird cameraman named Dax (Dax Flame), gives it the quality it needs to seem reliably “found”. The perspective shown is not limited to Dax’s, but also that of the cacophony of partygoers that have the sudden privilege of coming to an unknown kid’s 17th birthday party.

The scene that represents this feeling well is when the party is interrupted by a visit from the police. We see several perspectives: that of Dax, the tiny security guard that Costa hires, and JB (Jonathan Daniel Brown), who is at the back of the patio hiding with the other partygoers. The most important view within this moment happens seconds after the officers leave. We see the attendees film themselves, giggling with their friends while crouching down. Leading up to Costas declaring “to the break of dawn” with clamouring cheers, this scene serves as Project X’s most immediate and spontaneous moment. 

Nourizadeh, whose experience is mainly with directing music videos, brings a variety of compositions that manipulate the hand-held camerawork – slow-motion, diegetic soundtrack, frequent montages of attendees gyrating – for most of Project X’s running time. More than just a party film, Project X is saturated with a conventional coming-of-age story from screenwriter Michael Bacall, notable for penning 21 Jump Street (Chris Miller and Phil Lord, 2012)and Scott Pilgrim vs The World (Edgar Wright, 2010)

However shallow and lazy the execution is, Project X remains compelling by heralding the manic and voyeuristic instincts of a young man who is suddenly carefree. For the duration of the party, he is no longer subject to duress from his obnoxious best friend or the constraints of his unbearable parents. The party becomes Thomas’ ultimate triumph. Indeed, Thomas’ dad (Peter Mackenzie) is initially frustrated that his son is an unpopular “loser”, but later as the house burns down, he is surprised that his son has it in him to “bring” this party. 

Oliver, Thomas, and JB do not have the heart of Seth and Evan from Superbad (2007), nor do they face urgent situations like the boys from The Hangover (2009) and Chronicle (2012). Nevertheless, they seem like the socially awkward boys we knew from high school, who may be annoying but are far from threatening. The boys aren’t immune to the put-downs and physical potshots they take from one another. JB experiences an embarrassing erection after Oliver appears with a topless acquaintance – one of their goals for conquest.

If Project X has a distinguishable character, it is certainly Costa. His arrogance establishes Project X‘s unhinged tone, but his desires are less National Lampoon Bluto Blartasky and more Portney’s Complaint Alexander Portnoy. His sexual urges paint the film’s relationship with women in broader and profane terms. Costa brags that he is from Queens, and has a knack for being a savvy networker, even if he utilizes that ability recklessly. By carelessly sharing invitations with whoever will take them, Costas inadvertently spreads news of the upcoming party to a radio station that broadcasts the information, leading to the number of attendees exceeding his delusional expectations.

Oliver Cooper’s character is the centre of derision for many critics of Project X – he certainly is unlikeable in this film to anyone who is rather discerning. He is also the catalyst for how things can go wrong by stealing his drug dealer’s gnome, which hides a bag of ecstasy and eventually leads him to start a fire in the otherwise quiet Pasadena neighbourhood. But compared to the rest of the cast, including the more experienced Miles Teller, who plays a fictional version of himself, Cooper chews the scenery so much that his is the best performance. 

Project X (2012) is inspired by Australian Corey Worthington, a young suburban man from the quiet neighbourhood of Narre Warren who held a raucous and parentally unsupervised birthday party in 2008. He spread information about the party through MySpace, wherein 500 uninvited attendees spontaneously gathered. Television news took many opportunities to publicise his antics. In one interview between Worthington and a baffled TV presenter, he wryly refused to apologize for the destructive party. If nothing else, Worthington represented the Australian myth of the mischievous larrikin, who flips the finger to the media scolds.

Project X shows how party films can peak before the genre shifts to being more self-critical of its characters. A year after its release came Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers(2012) centring on three partying college students that got involved in crime. Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart (2019) unsuccessfully borrows the template from Superbad, but it is the opposite of Project X’s macho and politically incorrect ethos. Project X’s consequence-free fantasy remains the film’s most memorable accomplishment. It validates those whose ideal of adolescence is unfiltered and decadent.