Todd Phillips must believe that there is a shortage in movies geared towards over-privileged white suburban teenage boys because he keeps releasing films that are targeted at a particularly narrow-minded sensibility. Instead of a world where every human being has a purpose, Phillips prefers to present a world where some people, mostly minorities or anybody who can be labeled “different,” exist only to be laughed at by superior life forms.
Such is the unfortunate case in Project X, a film that is so bad that any adjective used to describe its plot can only be written in quotation marks. This “raucous” “teen” “comedy” puts Phillips in the producer’s seat while newcomer Nima Nourizadeh acts as the director. Marking the fourth wide release this year to use the “found footage” method of filmmaking, Project X tears down any positive case that its far better predecessor, Chronicle, made for the budding genre. While Chronicle uses the methods of found footage to give us a psychological insight into the characters while simultaneously reflecting our constantly wired society, Project X uses it for no other reason than “it’s the trend,” with no attempt to justify it any further.
The story in Project X is simple enough, because we have seen it dozens of times before (although, even the Disney Channel original movie “Smart House” does it more interestingly). The parents of Thomas (Thomas Mann) conveniently leave town on the night of his 18th birthday and leave him alone to have a small gathering with his friends. In an attempt to make a name for themselves and “change the game,” Thomas’s friend Costa (Oliver Cooper) invites the entire school to join in the debauchery and before long thousands flood into the neighborhood as the party descends into pure mayhem.
There are not really any characters that are important to follow and the film is assembled more like a hip hop music video, narcissism and all, than a narrative feature. The transitions between scenes of dialogue are longer than the scenes themselves and they mostly consist of blaring music with images that would exist in a thirteen year old boy’s fantasy. The black people are always smoking weed, the girls are always taking their clothes off, and the adults (anyone over the age of 25) are always trying to ruin the fun.
That is one of the primary problems with Todd Phillips’ films – he reduces people to their most easily identifiable stereotypes and invites us to laugh at them. In The Hangover, Part II, the usually funny Ken Jeong is nothing but a gross stereotype and the unnamed transvestites are only in the film to be a punch line. In Project X our three protagonists are reduced to an uptight dullard, a homophobic dolt, and a fat kid. Even though the characters are derivative of better teen comedies like Superbad or Animal House, they are a lot more annoying in Project X, even though the filmmakers clearly want them to be likable. Within the first few minutes Costa describes their camera touting friend as a “nerd from Gay-V club,” to the amusement of his personality deficient friends and I immediately hoped that their character arcs would include self-awareness that they are terrible people. No such change occurred.
It could be argued that moral justification is not exactly what Phillips and Nourizadeh are pursuing with Project X. After all, terrible people run Wall Street (and by extension, America) and many of them never receive punishment for their bad behavior. If that was the case then the film was terribly mis-marketed and the attempt to cobble together a love story for the protagonist is even more poorly executed. Thomas has a brief relationship with a “girl next door” type named Kirby (Kirby Bliss Blanton) that never works, because the actors have zero chemistry and the filmmakers can’t resist objectifying her like they do all women in the film (she has an obligatory swimming scene).
Beyond the narrative misdirection, the film is also assembled rather confusingly on a technical level. The filming is purportedly done by a fellow student named Dax (Dax Flame). Dax gets some brief character analysis, but everything we find out about him contradicts what he points his camera at. To justify the found footage genre we have to believe that the person holding the camera would always continue shooting, and we never understand exactly why Dax follows the main characters onto roofs, into the pool, etc. Not to mention, there are also mysterious microphones hidden around the house that allow us to hear characters speaking that are in different rooms or on the other side of windows.
The only message to be gleaned from Project X is that popularity is the most important thing about high school and the people really are what you perceive them to be. Thirteen year old boys might get much pleasure out of this movie, but I cannot help but hope that those same boys get smacked in the face with the real world some day. I would love to see a Project X sequel that revisits our three lead characters a decade later, still living in their home town, still trying to live the glory days. Then we would get to see how much of a “game change” that night really was.
Bottom Line: Avoid Project X, and by extension, all Todd Phillips movies. That might be what it takes for him to stop trying to convince today’s youth that he is, you know, really cool.