It's official: 2012 will go down as the year when the whole hey, we're making a documentary! shaky-cam thing busted out of its scrubby horror roots and proved that it could be applied to almost any genre. For a good long stretch there, the Blair Witch-derived mode was basically propping up haunted-house thrillers and grubby Exorcist knockoffs. So it seemed like a fading novelty. But a few weeks ago, Chronicle used that vérité randomness to create ingenious low-budget sci-fi. And now there's Project X, a mangy teenage house-party bacchanal, produced by Todd Phillips (The Hangover), that feeds I Love the '80s clichés through a kind of bobbing-camera Mixmaster. It's Can't Hardly Wait for the age of Jersey Shore.
In suburban Pasadena, three exceedingly ordinary high school dudes stage a birthday bash for one of them, even though they're hardly the sort of guys that you'd expect to attract a hot crowd. Thomas (Thomas Mann), the one turning 17, whose parents are going away for the weekend, is the dutiful son who has promised oh, has he promised! not to mess up their home. He's a dork in attitude, though just tall and good-looking enough that he doesn't seem pathetic. Costa (Oliver Cooper), his best friend, is the group spark plug, the David Krumholtz-Curtis Armstrong character a derisive noodge who speaks in hip-hop put-downs. And JB (Jonathan Daniel Brown), the tubby mouth-breather, is the harmless mascot along for the ride. The group's one other cohort remains off screen: His name is Dax, and he's the guy behind the camera (''He's gonna make us look pimp!'' says Costa). You could call the main three a junior Hangover trio, and you'd be right, except that the real giveaway to the kind of movie Project X is arrives when Thomas's father warns him not to lay a finger on Dad's cherished Mercedes. It's a trope out of the License to Drive teen-pulp comedies of the Reagan era (how long will it be before that car gets trashed?), and so is everything else in the movie. The difference being that the going-all-the-way gambits have now been wrapped in a kind of lively ersatz documentary of excess.
The party, after being advertised via mass e-mail, turns into a magnet for babes out of a Girls Gone Wild! segment, who of course strip off their tops to leap into the pool, where the camera can ogle them all the better. The crowd expands into a throng that turns into a sweaty, writhing horde. Even the nicest girls know how to shotgun a beer. And Dax's camera puts you right in the middle of it all, as everyone pumps fists and tongue kisses and smashes their way through other bodies that are packed into the bottle-strewn kitchen, the whole scene backlit with the kind of dank glow that spells ''Too much fun'' or maybe, if you've had enough tequila, ''Where the hell am I?'' An angry dwarf shows up and gets shut in the oven, then bursts out to extract his revenge (guess which of the revelers' body parts he's just short enough to keep hitting?). A garden gnome, smashed like a piñata, spills Ecstasy tablets all over the ground. And the party animals crash from a pulley into the pool, and hang from the chandelier...
And that's when things start to get really excessive. (I will just say one word: flamethrower.)
Project X has a clever title that makes the movie sound like much more of a curiosity than if it had been called, say, Party Rock Is in the House Tonight! It was directed by Nima Nourizadeh, a first-time filmmaker who does an impressive job of making the action look like one continuous, surging spurt of youthful hormonal alcoholic insanity. The film's guiding spirit, however, is Todd Phillips, who maintains his singular genius for updating the clichés of the Animal House/Risky Business era so that they look just dangerous enough to make nostalgia feel naughty. Phillips is Hollywood's reigning bad-boy auteur-mogul, but the secret of the Hangover movies, with their ''OMG, what the f- did I do last night?'' blackout dread followed by 90 minutes of ever-goofier explanations, is that they're actually quite conservative at heart. Project X, likewise, serves up the frat house/Spring Break/Snooki-and-Sitch-on-a-bender antics that many in the audience will have been staring at for years, and implies that it's breaking down bold new barriers of misbehavior. In the end, though, it ain't nothin' but a party. B