Todd Phillips’ philosophy would seem to be “If at first you succeed, try doing variations on the same thing again and again.” It’s a code that initially served the filmmaker well, taking him from the hit party-gone-wrong comedy Old School to the hit party-gone-wrong comedy The Hangover. More recently, not so much. The Hangover Part II failed to live up to expectations. His latest film just plain fails.
For the party-gone-wrong comedy Project X, Phillips acts as a producer rather than director and sets his sights on a new generation of moviegoers. Thomas (Thomas Mann), Costa (Oliver Cooper) and JB (Jonathan Daniel Brown) are Pasadena pals half the age of the bros in Phillips’ previous films. They’re high school kids on the periphery of popularity and willing to do whatever it takes to convince their classmates they’re cool.
Evidently Phillips either believes his target audience has never seen a movie made before 2008, or simply thinks very little of these ticket buyers, because he has put virtually zero effort into doing anything new. The story — to the extent Project X can be said to tell one — is a grab bag of bits from the teen canon. Writers Michael Bacall and Matt Drake leave no trope unturned. Their script plays like what you’d get if you put Animal House, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, House Party, Risky Business and Superbad in a blender.
The idea is that Thomas represents a sort of Everydude. Like the other characters his age, he’s been given no personality to speak of. He’s a 17-year-old who wants to get laid. When his parents decide to go away for the weekend, they have no qualms about leaving him home alone. “He’s not exactly Mr. Popular,” we see his father assure his mother. “He’s a loser.”
And, with the mandatory warning not to touch Dad’s expensive foreign car (can you believe this is what passes for foreshadowing in film schools these days?), they’re off. The trio get busy setting the stage for the bash they hope will win them the approval of their peers while helping them lose their virginity.
Well, let’s cut to the chase. For no credible reason (Costa sends out mass invitations electronically?), Thomas’ home is overrun by hundreds on hundreds of underage revelers, who conveniently bring their own booze and, in the case of the young women, can’t rip off their tops and hop into the backyard pool fast enough. Joints are passed around, pills are popped, and the DJ blasts music so loud you just know the grumpy neighbor will become a recurring character.
Boys and girls gone wild, casually raunchy banter between buds, the comical collateral damage from a night that got out of control — we’ve been here before. Phillips and company attempt to substitute scale for substance or invention. But, by the time the riot squad’s been called, flames lick the sky and the local news chopper shines its spotlight on what looks like a mini-Woodstock. The viewer isn’t shocked, as the film’s creators would like, but rather bored by the sheer nonsensical escalation of it all. Did I mention this is yet another fake found-footage deal?
Phillips apparently can’t even delegate effectively at this point. He’s outsourced directorial duties to a maker of TV commercials named Nima Nourizadeh, and that’s what this movie looks like — an ad for tiresome, tasteless excess. There isn’t an iota of joy within a mile of the proceedings. Hard to believe when it comes to the guy who helped launch Will Ferrell’s film career, but, if things continue to go wrong the way they have been lately, Phillips may find himself facing a once-inconceivable reality: The party’s over.