Review: Todd Phillips produces the ultimate ode to bad behavior with ‘Project X’

I must confess that I am fascinated by the new film “Project X.”  It’s not a particularly complicated film, in either concept or execution, but maybe that simplicity is what I like about it.  At heart, “Project X” is a John Hughes movie from the ’80s, right down to its final shot, but it’s wrapped in a level of chaos and decadence that sums up the career of producer Todd Phillips with a gleeful degree of anarchy.

This may be the biggest budget found-footage film I’ve seen so far, and this and “Chronicle” both suggest that the language of found-footage is finding its way into the mainstream in a very real way, and that there are ways to crank it up.  This is the story of Thomas Kub (Thomas Mann) and his 17th birthday party, as thrown by him, his friend Costa (Oliver Cooper), and their friend JB (Jonathan Daniel Brown).  It is strictly forbidden by Mom (Caitlin Dulany) and Dad (Peter Mackenzie) before they leave town, but Costa browbeats the much more pliant Thomas, convincing him that this is for his own good.  Costa overplans this thing on a scale that is like mounting a full-sized D-Day to take control of a playground.  This party isn’t just big.  This party isn’t just crazy.  This party is the end of the goddamn world.

And that’s exactly the sort of chaotic ecstasy that Todd Phillips seems to be chasing in his career.  He is, of course, best known as the director of both of the “Hangover” movies, as well as “Old School.”  His first films were documentaries.  “Hated” is a film that I love, a dirty, dirty little movie about the dirty, dirty G. G. Allin, and it’s all him.  It is as pure an expression of the Phillips voice as you’ll ever see, and the film’s primary underlying idea is “OH MY GOD LOOK AT G. G. ALLIN AND WHAT HE IS DOING! LOOK! LOOK! OH MY GOD!”

Which, once you see G. G. Allin, seems like an entirely rational response.

“Frat House,” which is somewhat infamous, is Todd Phillips working with the deranged Andrew Gurland, and the tension in that film is what results from two guys, both equally in love with terrible behavior, dropped into a system that is built on it.  Whatever “Frat House” is, and whatever balance there is between pure documentary and recreation, it feels authentic to me based on my own experiences and the experiences of my friends.  That is what I think Phillips wants to capture… the real feeling of transgression, the thrill that comes when we do what we are not supposed to do.

That’s “Project X” in a nutshell.  Directed by Nima Nourizadeh and written by Matt Drake and Michael Bacall (who is having a heck of a spring), the film is the found-footage embodiment of what every parent sees in their head as their worst nightmare when they leave their kid alone while they’re out of town.  My own parents left me in my house a few times when they traveled with my younger sister, ostensibly so I could work or go to school, but I was fully cognizant of the implied freedom, and I failed the test.  I threw parties.  I indulged things that they fully disapproved of.  I did terrible things to my high school girlfriend.  And at the time, it felt like I was Marlon Brando in “The Wild One.”  I felt like I was turned loose, like I was re-inventing wild.  Looking back, it was pretty mild as teenage rebellion goes, but it felt crazy.  It felt like it was the size of “Project X,” and just as decadent.

So that’s what I think works about this.  “Project X” is that feeling, captured and unleashed on a massive scale.  As the party in the film keeps growing, it seems like it gets as big as it can get, and then it keeps getting bigger, and as dirty and as weird as things seem up front, they just keep escalating.

There are some moments in the film that feel almost rigorously scripted, scenes where there are some things that seem important to the overall story of the film, and the young cast does a good job with that material.  These are the scenes that make it overtly feel like a movie, and anytime you’re making a found footage movie, the “who” and the “why” of the decision to shoot it as found footage have got to be the main questions you ask yourself before you start.  In this film, those questions are answered with jokes, and that’s okay.  The film’s absurd from start to finish.  It’s a movie that uses the “reality” of found footage to tell a story that is completely absurd.  I know I’m not being specific here, but part of the thrill of watching this is seeing the ways they escalate, the gradual way Thomas and his friends lose control of this thing they’ve created.

What’s really impressive about the work that Nourizadeh does here is that there are long hypnotic stretches of the film where it feels like a documentary, like you’re lost at this crazy Altamont of house parties.  And then you’re watching a scene, something staged, something with character arcs built in, and then suddenly you’re back in what feels like real chaos, like something dangerous.  Ken Seng’s cinematography and Jeff Groth’s editing lend an epic touch to the proceedings, and it’s impressive seeing how they carve this narrative out of the oh-my-god madness of the five-week shoot for the party.  The film can be fairly one-note and linear, and you may get tired of the bad behavior on display well before the characters onscreen do, but I like the young performers, and more than that, it feels to me like this is a funny way of taking familiar tropes to an almost unnervingly R-rated end.

Ultimately it’s all about boy-chasing-girl, about as old a teenage movie trope as there is, but it’s done with a certain dark majesty, an aggressive sense of brutal humor.  I ultimately liked “Project X,” and while I don’t think it’s a deep experience, it’s an authentic experience, and I respect that about it.  It’s almost aggressively anti-movie in any conventional sense, and that’s part of what I enjoyed about it.  “Project X” barely plays by any rules, down to that title that tells you nothing about the film, and in the end, while it has a conservative heart, the film delivers on its premise at a volume that… yes… shocked me.

Mission accomplished, Phillips.  Mission accomplished.

“Project X” will burn down movie theaters everywhere starting Friday.