Interior. Leather Bar.: Sundance Review

The hourlong experiment is mainly for queer-theory students and Francomaniacs.

James Franco teams with Travis Mathews for another self-conscious art project, this one with a gay theme.

PARK CITY — James Franco and Travis Mathews use the controversy over William Friedkin's Cruising as an excuse to explore the discomfort gay sexuality causes straight men in Interior. Leather Bar., an experimental work that, with its occasional explicit scenes of fellatio, will certainly not be playing on any double bills with Franco's upcoming Disney production Oz: The Great and Powerful. Offering a lower nutjob-entertainment factor than Franco's recent festival exploit Francophrenia, but more credible as an artistic statement, the film isn't as provocative as some may expect, which will probably suit the actor's fans just fine.

(Speaking of Francophiles, let's get it out of the way: Franco himself participates in no makeouts -- gay or straight, explicit or chaste -- here. He doesn't even take his shirt off.)

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Opening titles inform us that Friedkin's 1980 film -- which sent Al Pacino undercover into the gay S&M subculture to hunt a serial killer, and inspired outrage in the gay community -- had 40 minutes of boundary-pushing footage deleted in its quest for an R rating. Franco and Mathews, preoccupied with the normalization of gay culture, wonder what was in those scenes, and decide to hire actors to shoot an imaginary version.

They cast a mix of gay and straight actors, with Franco's straight friend Val Lauren playing the Pacino character, whose role is mainly to observe the paddling, boot-licking, and other naughty stuff transpiring in the club's dark corners. Lauren's wife isn't thrilled about the job; neither is a friend who spends a good deal of phone time trying to talk Lauren out of it. But Val believes in Franco despite not quite getting what he's trying to prove. He takes the job.

If Franco and Mathews really intended to offer viewers 40 minutes of chaps-wearing depravity, they changed their mind along the way. Perhaps 10 or 15 minutes of their re-imagined footage makes it to the screen, with the rest of the hourlong featurette following the film's creation. Most of this backstage time centers on the cast's discussion of how uncomfortable this job makes them.

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Asked what he's after, Franco tells Val he resents having been trained by society to feel certain things are okay and others aren't. He thinks there should be more sex, of any kind, in movies, and wants to push viewers and himself out of their comfort zones.

But while Leather Bar will surely make some viewers itchy, its most compelling subject isn't whether straight guys can stand to watch one man pleasuring another. More interesting is the question of what would make this project art as opposed to porn. Is it just the participation of a movie star? Is it heady intent?

More interesting than that is a question having less to do with sex than power: Almost all these men, including the ones who are very uncomfortable with the material, say they're participating in this low-rent, one-day project for the opportunity to work with James Franco. How does the famous actor feel about letting his artistic whims dictate that others suffer queasy stomachs and shaky consciences on his behalf? Or are even these backstage crises (as a couple of shots suggest) scripted and rehearsed?

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Production Company: Rabbit Bandini Productions

Cast: Val Lauren, James Franco, Christian Patrick, Travis Mathews, Brenden Gregory, Brad Roberge, Colin Chavez, A.J. Goodrich

Directors: James Franco, Travis Mathews

Screenwriter: Travis Mathews

Producers: James Franco, Vince Jolivette, Travis Mathews, Iris Torres, Keith Wilson

Executive producers:

Director of photography: Keith Wilson

Music: Santiago Latorre

Editor: Travis Mathews

Sales: Andrew Herwitz, The Film Sales Company

No rating, 60 minutes