Project X is an astounding, superlative movie about reckless adolescence — a brutal, unapologetic comedy about the fantasy every high school kid carries around in his head of being popular and cool and beloved. This is a cinematic mix tape of every conceivable teen-film staple — Rebel Without a Cause, Over the Edge, Porky’s, John Hughes’ entire body of work — cranked up to deafening volume and given a modern spit-polish. There isn’t a single thing in Project X that isn’t derivative or borrowed. You’ve just never seen it done quite like this before.
The movie was inspired by the real-life exploits of Corey Delaney, an Australian teenager who threw a house party that got so out of control the riot police had to be called in. Director Nima Nourizadeh uses the found-footage approach (one of the characters in the movie is filming everything with his camera) to tell a similar story. When his parents go away on vacation, the likable nerd Thomas (Thomas Mann) and his two pals Costa (Oliver Cooper) and JB (Jonathan Daniel Brown) decide to throw the mother of all bashes, a game-changer that will make everyone at school want to be their friends. Especially the girls.
Written by Matt Drake and Michael Bacall (the latter wrote the upcoming, equally hilarious 21 Jump Street), Project X doesn’t bother establishing characters and situations. Instead, the movie relies on the fact that you already know these characters and situations by heart. When Thomas’ father warns him not to drive his car under any circumstances whatsoever while he’s away, you laugh because the joke is ancient, yet the movie plays it utterly straight. Later, though, when the inevitable wrecking of Dad’s car happens, the movie exceeds your expectations: The damage is far worse than you could have possibly imagined.
All of Project X is like that. We’ve had countless movies in which teenagers talk about sex in surprisingly blunt and vulgar ways (remember Superbad?). But the scene in which the cherubic, baby-faced JB uses his hands to give his friends some tips to help them with the ladies still gets stunned laughs out of you, because it is so astonishingly dirty, but it’s also a real joke, and the kid knows what he’s talking about.
Every generation grows up smarter and more aware than the previous one, and many teens today have lost their innocence long before they’ve even hit puberty. Project X is a comedy about kids weaned on the Internet and video games and cable: They know too many things they probably shouldn’t know, but they can still tell right from wrong. The characters do bad, bad things, but they’re not rotten: They’re just driven by the impetuous nature and sense of indestructibility that belongs to the young, and the movie is a wish-fulfillment fantasy about adolescents giving in to every one of their impulses, consequences be damned.
Producer Todd Phillips, who has pushed the envelope of taste and propriety throughout his career (he made Old School, The Hangover and the infamous documentary Frat House), also has a taste for the absurd, and he knows the value of a good visual gag. Project X has a running bit of business involving Thomas’s pet Yorkshire Terrier, who suffers a series of indignities as the house party begins to spiral out of control (before the first keg has run dry, the animal has already been tied to balloons and sent floating into the air). But the movie, beneath its raunchy veneer, is so noble and good-hearted that even the dog gets laid before the night is out. Twice.
Even by contemporary standards, Project X manages to shock — every time you think the movie can’t push things any further, it does — but the lunacy is all imbued by a convivial spirit. It’s a celebration, not a cautionary tale. The movie is crude but not mean-spirited, and it gets you laughing at things that don’t sound funny at all, such as the annoyed neighbor who comes over to complain about noise and ends up punching a 12-year-old boy in the face, or the dwarf who is shoved into the oven in Thomas’ kitchen and locked inside (he gets revenge, though). Because of the found-footage approach, with characters speaking directly into the handheld camera, Project X has none of the distancing gloss of a typical Hollywood comedy. When people have sex, they seem to really be having sex, and when they take drugs, they look genuinely, unnervingly high.
That sort of realism is critical, because the fun of Project X is that it all seems entirely plausible, even after the guy with the flame thrower shows up and TV news choppers are buzzing the party. The movie is destined to generate some hand-wringing from grown-ups nervous about the message it sends to young people. These will be the same adults who turned out OK even though they grew up watching Tom Cruise get into an Ivy League university by operating a brothel out of his home in Risky Business. Comedies grow coarser and wilder with every generation, the same way horror films get gorier and more explicit. Project X is so insanely over-the-top, I gaped at it more than I laughed. There were times during the movie when I couldn’t believe it even exists. My only complaint is that they didn’t make them like this when I was 16.
Cast: Thomas Mann, Oliver Cooper, Jonathan Daniel Brown, Kirby Bliss Blanton, Miles Teller.
Director: Nima Nourizadeh.
Screenwriters: Matt Drake, Michael Bacall.
Producer: Todd Phillips.
A Warner Bros. release. Running time: 88 minutes. Vulgar language, nudity, explicit sex, violence, drug use and everything else that keeps parents up late at night worrying about their kids. Opens Friday March 2 at area theaters.