Rating: ★★☆☆☆

The marketing team behind Project X has certainly done a stellar job drumming up intrigue, with an esoteric advertising campaign hinting that it might amount to being more than just a found footage version of producer Todd Phillips‘ most successful work to date, The Hangover. Unfortunately even the involvement of the talented scribe Michael Bacall (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, 21 Jump Street) can’t save a fundamentally misguided film, one which aims to entertain with its lewd audacity yet gets too ahead of itself and ends up fumbling the basics instead.

It’s Thomas’s (Thomas Mann) birthday, and his friends Costa (Oliver Cooper) and J.B. (Jonathan Daniel Brown) are planning to help him throw an epic party while the parents are away. A bout of overzealousness on the part of Costa, inviting just about everyone he does and does not know, however means that far more people than anticipated show up, causing things to quickly get out of hand, as Thomas frantically tries to save his parents’ home from total destruction.

To be fair, this isn’t a terrible premise for a film at all, and the found footage gimmickry could have been a clever way to revitalise both the creatively challenged sub-genre and the teen comedy itself. Instead, hokey execution from the outset stifles any promise, as we discover that the party footage is captured by a virtual non-entity, an unpopular goth student called Dax (Dax Flame) who Costa has convinced to document the mayhem. If Dax, who stays sober throughout the entire film, drew a judgemental or even remotely subjective eye over his coverage, Project X could have been an interesting examination of the party culture, but as he covers the action almost entirely objectively, and stays silent throughout, he is simply a hollow shade of a character who fulfils a wholly singular function.

Even accepting this unimaginative conceit, there’s the problem of dealing with the script, which seems divorced from any sense of reality, right down to Thomas’s parents; his own father inexplicably refers to him as a “loser”, and besides, what kind of loving parents go away on the weekend of their son’s birthday anyway? This is about as involved as the plot gets; it is incredibly scant, resulting in far too many party montages throughout set to music you’ll need booze, pills or an untoward combination of both to enjoy. The point here is why would you sit in a cinema on a Friday night watching people partying when you can just go out and do it yourself? Its complete lack of anything resembling a narrative trajectory makes it feel too long even at a lean 88 minutes, particularly with a set-up that takes far longer than it should.

Another problem is the characters and their overpowering lack of likeability. The three leads aren’t sweetly crude like the protagonists in something like Superbad; they’re crass, mean-spirited douchebags, lacking the coy awkwardness or absence of confidence that might have made their rude banter charming rather than genuinely slimy. This is important when all illusion of realism is irreversibly abandoned in the final act; cars crashing into pools, flamethrower-totting psychos and even a SWAT team abound all in the name of escalation, yet it is difficult to care about how Thomas is going to fix his situation when he and his friends are so difficult to warm to. The absence of basic narrative facets, such as authentic characters, along with more incidental elements like the sight of at least one person smoking at the party, is baffling.

More offensive than the poor characterisation is the film’s message; it appears to suggest that as long as you gain the approval of idiots from your school who don’t even like you in the first place, then it is probably worth risking a bright future. This is topped only by a facepalm-inducing romantic resolution, in which the sins of the night are promptly undone with one line of unremarkable dialogue from our intrepid “hero”.

Project X plays fast and loose with the laws of the found footage format; incredulously disjointed establishing shots appear out of nowhere with no spatial logic, and earlier scenes in the film are backed to music for apparently no reason whatsoever. The party coverage is meanwhile delineated by cutting between various phone recordings, surveillance cameras, cop cars and so on, and while Nima Nourizadeh’s direction is the least of the film’s problems, it is the lazy script which truly lets this promising concept down. Like cameraman Dax, we’re the only sober one at the party, and it’s not much fun.

Project X is out now in cinemas.

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This article was first posted on March 3, 2012