Pasadena, in case you were wondering, is where the meaning of the word “epic” goes to die. To believe the “found footage” assembled in Project X, it went up in flames along with most houses on a suburban street there last May, the result of a teenage birthday bash ramping up into a nexus of excess, nothing short of a coming-of-age riot.
It would be tempting to peg this on Thomas (Thomas Mann), newly seventeen and eager to throw a modest party while his folks are out of town, but the blame really falls on Costa (Oliver Cooper), a mouthy horndog whose efforts to spread the word work all too well. There’s also J.B. (Jonathan Daniel Brown), but he’s just happy to be there, even as the ripe target for Costa’s relentless cracks about his weight. Their friendship is nigh inexplicable, but they are united in the efforts to go from high-school nothings to self-made legends. This night will be epic, Costa promises. A game-changer, he says, though not as often as he utters homophobic slurs at guys and misogynistic labels at girls.
And sure enough, it’s the mother of all ragers, practically tazing Bret Easton Ellis' The Rules of Attraction and wresting the title of End of the World Party right out of its twitching hands. As Stefon from “SNL” might say, this party has everything: a gnome-crazy drug dealer, a ball-busting little person, a dog hoisted into the air by balloons, overzealous underage security, young actor Miles Teller (Footloose) as a baseball star version of himself, and enough drug and drink to keep the masses teeming into the night, much to the neighbors’ chagrin. In true teen-movie fashion, we’re also given Thomas’ smokin’ childhood friend, the crush that still draws his attention away from her, and the blonde alpha male prick that our leads can neither stand nor stand up to.
As directed by first-timer Nima Nourizadeh and produced by Todd Phillips, Project X dutifully destroys each and every rule laid out on screen (“Nobody touches Dad’s car,” etc.) while rarely deviating from the familiar hurdles of high school comedies. It specifically evokes 2007’s seminal Superbad and 2010’s underseen The Virginity Hit, each of which more hilariously encapsulated the awkward pursuit of cherry-popping good times, with the latter even employing the same handheld conceit as this film. (Never mind who exactly is responsible for the pumping techno soundtrack and slow-motion segments after the fact. The endeavor is only ever as legit as it needs to be.)
Those two romps worked because of their underlying structure and sincerity, which is swapped out here in favor of mean spirits and the sheer escalation of the proceedings. This film’s sole trump card is the eventual scale of the mayhem, and while it doesn’t require any grand message in the end, a simple point would have been nice. Mann, Cooper and Brown need not be entirely three-dimensional characters with full-blown backstories, but it might have been less tiresome to spend the duration with this crew if they weren’t necessarily a collection of fledgling douchebags who -- spoiler alert? -- practically get away with destroying the neighborhood scot-free, as title cards crudely confirm.
Alas, it’s wish fulfillment for the young, dumb and full of you-know-what. It’s a rallying cry for the curious to sneak in if they’re not old enough to buy their own ticket, and for the rest of us, it’s about as fun as one might imagine watching 88 minutes of home movies of other people reveling to be. So the nerds become heroes at the end of the totally epic day. Then what? This party has no hangover, and frankly, Project X is no Hangover.