Despite the plodding narrative veering wildly between stagnant humor and maudlin interjections, Todd Phillips’ “Due Date” demonstrates in one scene both the appeal and increasingly mean-spirited worldview that the filmmaker has traded in following the success of “The Hangover.” It comes when Robert Downey Jr., provoked repeatedly by a bratty child, unleashes a swift punch out of nowhere to his gut, a calm look of manic glee in the actor’s eye as the boy crumples to the floor. The moment shocks, its transgression revealing one more facet of Downey’s character as a well-groomed man one highway trek away from “Falling Down.” Like Michael Douglas in that film, Philips allows his characters to be proxies for unspent male angst and wish fulfillment, and this has proved fruitful for the studios that finance his projects. When a similar sort of confrontation occurs halfway through the Phillips-produced “Project X,” from a disgruntled, middle-aged neighbor to an attendee of what the film’s characters deem the “most epic party ever,” it seems miniscule, a mere glimmer on the glacier of debauchery and wanton destruction the film revels in. Under Phillips’ guidance, it’s obvious director Nima Nourizadeh is attempting to create the sort of film to watch before going out on the weekend, but in the process he ends up securing more a position of muted party fare while shots are lined up elsewhere.
The film centers on three high school students low on the social totem pole, yet ever keen to gain school popularity through Thomas’ (Thomas Mann) upcoming birthday party. His two friends, Costa (Oliver Cooper, inhabiting the requisite Jonah Hill-esque sidekick role to admirable results) and J.B. (Jonathan Daniel Brown, playing essentially a pudgy, teenage version of Brick Tamland from “Anchorman“), back him up, using all of their contacts to deliver a game-changing party while Thomas’ parents are away. They also decide to document the entire event first-person with the help of AV whiz-kid/psycho Dax (Dax Flame), and while “Chronicle” and “The Devil Inside” received recent notices for how especially unnecessary and inept the found-footage style is, Nourizadeh skillfully jumps between cell phone, Flip cam, and HD to create a stunning immediacy, especially in the pulsating party scenes.
This leads to the central draw of the film, and rightly so. The hour-long combination of hundreds of extras, bathed in alcohol and music, shedding clothes with the alacrity of “fucks” uttered from the partygoers’ mouths, truly sets a new bar for celebration on film. As stated, the film jumps between format and geography, but never is there any (unintended) confusion of place or faces. The soundtrack is near impeccable as well; drawing in a mix of electro remixes with rock and techno, it creates a seductively trashy atmosphere throughout that pushes the sound mix into the red constantly.
It all retains an exhilarating focus, at least until roughly halfway into the already-brief runtime (88 minutes), when the plot veers its characters into wholly clunky and predictable directions. A subplot involving Thomas’ affections toward both his childhood best friend (Kirby Bliss Blanton) and the sylph-like popular girl (Alexis Knapp) develops exactly the way you’d imagine, and concludes in such a mind-numbingly embarrassing way it’s astonishing it passed even a first draft. Same goes for the (minor spoilers) consequences of the day after the party, in which all are admonished, sure, but all is waived away with a shrug of the shoulders and encouragement to make the same decisions over again. “Young Adult” struck a similar story beat with far more success, because we learned enough about Charlize Theron’s character to understand her warped worldview as she sees nothing wrong in what’s she’s doing. The protagonists in “Project X” all express disbelief and fear at one point or another, but never is it anything more than a surface beat before Kid Cudi blasts back over the speakers and we’re off to the next drug-induced montage. For all the flashy visuals, attractive women, and explosions that litter the increasingly preposterous climax too, it all felt a bit – boring. Since Nourizadeh comes from a commercial background, it is clear that he couldn’t find a way to channel the mayhem on display into anything approaching a point.
It’s disappointing too, because a teen film tackling social media and its documentation of every aspect of our lives remains a subject calling for a better film than this. As it stands though, the lack of character and lazy screenwriting simply deflate the film into a wearying exploration of hopeless annihilation. Within its first 45 minutes, “Project X” is a frequently hilarious, wickedly seductive thrill, but the paper-thin premise tires itself out to exhaustion, taking a morally irresponsible film into the realm of just irritating. [C+]