UNLIKABLE CHARACTERS CRASH “PROJECT X”

by Jeff Schultz on March 13, 2012

I felt the need to take a trip over the rainbow this weekend into a land beyond dreams in the new movie, “Project X” — a land crammed with limitless booze, loud jams, pools of topless girls, a Jimmy Kimmel cameo and even an enraged midget who literally reaches his boiling point when he is thrown into a hot oven. Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.

We’re not in Oz, either, but specifically North Pasadena. “Project X” is an expect-the-unexpected exercise in unbridled adolescence, taking a new approach to tap into the deepest crevices of your pleasure centers. Three friends seize their buddy’s birthday as the perfect opportunity to host a rager hoping to advance their social statuses. By fluke, the party flares into an orgy — all captured on film for you to witness in the confines of your theater seat. However, the party of a lifetime is ruined by a mix of characters so mean-spirited they make the wicked witch seem like a perfect date. The punks even victimize the family dog by strapping him to a hoard of balloons, lifting him away like Gonzo the Great.

And that’s just one of the attractions of “Project X,” using a familiar plot to show kids doing brainless things all for the purpose of getting laid. The film’s ambitious marketing promises the audience a good time beyond its imagination; the main problem is that during the first 60 minutes, the film has little imagination itself. The characters score drugs and steal a garden gnome from a psychotic in his bathrobe, spit insults at disapproving adults, perform acrobatics off the chandelier, cannonball dive off the roof into the swimming pool and taser neighbors who just want to get some shuteye. An audience of teenage boys might salivate over the babes and snicker at the coarse language, but others will find the party’s not for them and wait patiently for the cops to arrive. When they do, things go delightfully offbeat for a moment when the bathrobed psychotic returns with a flamethrower looking for his gnome.

The biggest name attached to “Project X” is producer Todd Phillips, who is responsible for “The Hangover,” the most successful R-rated comedy ever, and the 2003 romp “Old School.” Phillips’ comedies rely on ensemble casts, which he often directs well, propelling the movie careers of Zach Galifiankis, Ed Helms and Will Ferrell. But the wacky personalities that make Phillips’ characters memorable are missing from the “Project X” gang, who are more like pale imitations of the “Superbad” cast. Thomas Mann plays the birthday boy who acts like Michael Cera trying to sustain his composure during the fiasco, while the snotty, Jonah Hill-esque Oliver Cooper is oblivious to the kind of mayhem he’s created.

Phillips and his producing team attempted to revamp teen party films of the 80s and 90s, from John Hughes’ movies to “American Pie,” by using the newfangled raw footage method (not just for horror movies anymore!). Catering to the “Jersey Shore” generation, the film is sparse on the heart and life lessons in its predecessors. We latch our empathy on to Thomas, but he’s shallow and one-dimensional compared to performances we’ve seen from Tom Cruise in “Risky Business” and Molly Ringwald in “Sixteen Candles.” Even Thomas’ parents don’t think much of him. The camera eavesdrops on a candid conversation where the dad says they have no reason to worry about leaving their son alone for the weekend because, “He’s a loser.” Thanks, Dad.

Without a strong character base, “Project X” fails to take the teen party film to another level. I honestly had a better time shaking it with Frankie and Annette in the “Beach Party” movies. “Progject X” says today’s youth must go to extremes in order to have a good time, consequences or no consequences. But I’m not McLovin it.

Jeff Schultz is a reporter for The Chesterton Tribune in Northwest Indiana and former editor-in-chief of The Purdue Review. He is also co-host of The Eclectic Blender on WVLP, 98.3 FM and wvlp.org.

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