“My dick is going to get so wet tonight ” declares Costa the foul-mouthed ringleader of a trio of sex-starved teens in the opening moments of Project X the new “found-footage” comedy from director Nima Nourizadeh and producer Todd Phillips (The Hangover). Believe it or not this qualifies as one of his more charming moments in the film. All of 17 but blessed with an obnoxiousness lesser men would take decades to cultivate Costa (Oliver Cooper) is the perfect mascot for a film that makes no bones of its mostly prurient intentions proffering what is essentially a succession of debaucherous montages intermingled with uneven attempts at comedy and held together by the slimmest pretense of a plot.
Caustic as he is Costa at least exhibits something of a recognizable personality; the same cannot be said of his two cohorts the tubby dweeb J.B. (Jonathan Daniel Brown) and the earnest blank Thomas (Thomas Mann). None of them seem to enjoy much in the way of popularity at their high school located in the fictional suburb of North Pasadena but Costa has a plan to fix that. On the occasion of his 17th birthday Thomas whose parents have conveniently departed for the weekend reluctantly agrees to host a party that Costa promises will be a “game-changer” for their lowly social status.
Hardly a game-changer is Project X’s script co-written by Matt Drake and Michael Bacall which mostly treads a predictable teen-comedy path. At its outset the party appears to be a bust. Soon however hordes of eager revelers descend upon Thomas’ house and the event swiftly devolves into a festival of wanton hedonism that would impress Charlie Sheen. The orgy of booze drugs and sex is captured by Nourizadeh in one impressively slick sequence after another set to a vibrant soundtrack.
To maintain the guise of an actual movie – and to occupy us between shots of topless beauties downing tequila and frolicking in the pool – Project X tosses in a few familiar tropes to push its story along: an unstable drug-dealer bent on revenge a buzzkilling neighbor seeking to end the night’s festivities prematurely a budding but hesitant attraction between Thomas and his childhood friend Kirby (Kirby Bliss Blanton). But the scenes are so hollow and contrived that you get the sense even the filmmakers don’t buy them and only added them to the film in a transparent ploy to forestall allegations of complete and utter vapidity. The efforts serve only to add a dash of the banal to the proceedings.
Project X’s natural forebears – R-rated teen comedies Superbad and American Pie – tempered their crudity and outrageousness with a surprising degree of depth and sincerity. Moreover they were actually funny. Project X is a shallow affair to be sure but a dearth of laughs is what ultimately dooms it. A belligerent little person who goes on a crotch-kicking spree after being tossed in an oven amounts to the film’s most sophisticated attempt at humor. More often it relies on recycled gags from previous films (including Phillips’ own library from Road Trip to The Hangover Part II) and Jackass-inspired mishaps.
The found-footage approach has proven to be a potent (if overused) tool in horror films but its utility in the service of comedy at least in the hands of Nourizadeh is limited. It mostly comes across as a needless gimmick good for marketing purposes but little else. Perhaps acknowledging as much Project X’s backup plan calls for an incessant raising of the stakes. As the once-innocuous gathering metastasizes into a fully-fledged riot one so dangerous that even the police dare not intervene the specter of parental disapproval gives way to the threat of incarceration and finally to the potential incineration of the entire neighborhood. The scale of the destruction is impressive – especially for such a (presumably) low-budget film – but like much of what precedes it almost entirely pointless.
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As the film’s title indicates in no uncertain terms our heroine teenager Molly Hartley (Haley Bennett) is haunted by a tragic past that keeps coming back to torment her. Attempting to acclimate to a new school (Huntington Prep) Molly must deal with new classmates and also recurring bouts of nosebleeds and hallucinations -- particularly of her wild-eyed mother (Marin Hinkle) who had previously tried to stab her to death claiming that she was trying to save her from some sort of birthright. “The darkness is coming for you ” said Mom before plunging a pair of scissors into Molly’s chest. What’s really going on? Are Molly’s hallucinations of a psychotic or a supernatural nature? It takes a long while to get to that point by which time the answer should be obvious ... and long after audience interest has dwindled severely.
An interesting and attractive actress Haley Bennett (Music and Lyrics) doesn’t necessarily project the vulnerability that her tormented character would call for but she seems capable of carrying a film. Unfortunately this one lets her down -- and the problem lies entirely in the story. Everyone else in the cast is saddled with one-dimensional characters: Jake Weber as Molly’s perennially-worried dad; Chace Crawford as the resident hunk; Shanna Collins as a born-again classmate; and Shannon Marie Woodward as a more rebellious classmate. Ron Canada as the school superintendent is on and off the screen so fast one wonders why he bothered at all. There is however a nice if smallish turn by Nina Siemaszko as the school’s guidance counselor who’s clearly got her eye on these goings-on. The Haunting of Molly Hartley marks the feature directorial debut of Mickey Liddell who previously toiled on the small screen as a producer of Everwood and Jack & Bobby two shows with prominent teenaged characters -- so he has experience in the field. There are some interesting camera angles and technically the film is competent enough but the story unravels at the midway point and Liddell is unable to stop the skid. By the film’s (foregone) conclusion it’s begun to telegraph its shocks and its plot twists with increasing regularity. It’s well-made but it’s also flat. There’s not a particularly high body count but there’s obvious editing in some of the more violent scenes -- clearly an attempt to earn the film a PG-13 rating which is a far friendlier proposition at the box-office where this should earn some decent coin from the horror faithful.
In his effort to recall and contrast the enthusiastic optimism that surrounded the presidential campaign of RFK with the heartbreaking illusion-shattering reality of his assassination Estevez wisely bypasses conventional biopic storytelling or even conspiracy-minded cinematic razzle-dazzle of JFK. Instead he tells the tale from the ground level focusing on a large disparate cast of characters of differing social status – some interconnected some not – who’ve assembled at Los Angeles’ swank Ambassador Hotel on the fateful day in 1968 and as a group they’re both as troubled as that turbulent year and still each clinging to hope in their own individual ways. There’s the Dodger-loving busboy (Freddy Rodriguez) contending with a brooding racist kitchen boss (Christian Slater) and bolstered by an eloquent chef (Laurence Fishburne); the head of staff (William H. Macy) who’s sleeping with a comely switchboard girl (Heather Graham) while seemingly happily married to the hotel’s compassionate beauty salon operator (Sharon Stone); she in turn counsels both a young teen bride-to-be (Lindsay Lohan) marrying a friend (Elijah Wood) to protect him from service in Vietnam and the faded boozy lounge singer (Demi Moore) whose self-destructive cruelty alienates her subservient husband (Emilio Estevez); a veteran hotel manager (Anthony Hopkins) and his retiring crony (Harry Belafonte) reflect on their lifetime of experience while an idealistic Kennedy campaigner (Joshua Jackson) dispatches two volunteers (Shia LaBeoufand Brian Geraghty) to recruit last-minute voters but they head off on an acid trip with a high-minded hippie (Ashton Kutcher); the disconnected May-December couple (Martin Sheen and Helen Hunt) the black campaign volunteer (Nick Cannon) who’s already lost too many leaders; the crusading Czechoslovakian journalist (Lenka Janacek) scrambling for an interview with the candidate; and Kennedy himself appearing in news and archival footage the most eerily effective presence in the film. While such an A-list ensemble of actors initially seems like a director’s dream team they are also responsible for the biggest hurdle the film faces. While most films have a handful of stars and the luxury of time to help audiences forget their celebrity status and embrace them as the characters they’re playing Bobby keeps shoehorning more and more famous faces into short scenes which makes it somewhat more difficult to shake the initial distraction of “Hey there’s so-and-so!” Some of skilled cast—particularly Hopkins Belafonte Macy Sheen Hunt Rodriguez and Fishburne—make the transition easier but with others who are known more as “stars” than actors (Moore Stone Lohan and Kutcher) it takes longer to adjust. And that’s not to say those performances are bad: Moore is terrific reminding us more of her innate watchability on screen than her well-preserved looks and much-younger husband; Stone is in top form despite her overly dowdy get-up; and Kutcher shows his skill with a slightly subtler form of comedy than he usually delivers. Lohan is only passable however trying too self-consciously to appear vulnerable. Still other performances are revelations: Cannon shows as-yet-unseen depth and fire Jackson displays a Clooney-esque self-assured poise and Estevez smartly underplays his role. Understatement definitely seems to be Estevez’s watchword. He typically eschews an overly flashy cinematic approach and simply allows his actors to bring the scenes to emotional life even as he takes great pains to get the period details just right. When he does bring his technical filmmaking savvy more obviously to the forefront primarily in the scenes that integrate real scenes of Kennedy into the story it’s especially potent. Indeed the first three-quarters of the film are well-shot well-acted vignettes that evoke an era but it’s the thoughtful and clever integration of RFK into the third act that unifies and ultimately gives each of the stories—and the film as a whole—genuine dramatic power. Ultimately Estevez uses Kennedy’s own words to deliver a solemn respectful eulogy for the man and a hopeful call to keep the man’s dreams alive.