'The Pretenders': Film Review

Courtesy of Cleopatra Entertainment
You’ll be left breathless, but not in a good way.

James Franco's latest directorial effort follows three budding cinephiles in love with the French New Wave and one another.

Definitely not the last, though probably one of the least, works to emerge from the ever-expanding James Franco Project, the nostalgic film school dramedy The Pretenders is also a film school-level production in every sense of the term: flat-footed performances, a shoddy script, sloppy filmmaking and faux-clever homages to directors like Godard, Truffaut and Bertolucci that will probably only entice viewers in, well, the first year of film school, should they happen to see it.

Shot back in 2016 and shelved for a while beyond a few fest premieres, with Cleopatra Entertainment planning to release it theatrically and on VOD in the U.S. this summer, The Pretenders feels like Franco decided to take the lessons from his far superior The Disaster Artist to heart: It’s a movie about a guy who claims to loves movies but doesn’t seem to know how to make them.

It’s also an extremely male-centric view of cinema whereby a wannabe auteur, Terry (Jack Kilmer), falls head-over-heels for a beautiful girl, Catherine (Jane Levy), whom he sees as the spitting image of Anna Karina and first encounters during a screening of Godard’s A Woman Is a Woman. That’s the catalyst for the rest of the story, which includes many other nods to '60s and '70s art house classics, such as a bit where Terry goes to see Last Tango in Paris and gets it on with a Maria Schneider-lookalike in the alleyway behind the theater. (This is a real scene, and it happens twice. Franco clearly didn't get the memo about Schneider's treatment on that film.)

Made before the Harvey Weinstein affair and other #MeToo scandals, including those involving Franco himself, went public, The Pretenders is tone-deaf in ways that will no longer pass muster in a post-Weinstein world. But it’s also just deaf to the very movies that it’s trying to celebrate, which are recognized less for their artistic value than for their ability to get people laid. It’s as if Franco decided to revisit some of the best works of the New Wave, and other epochs, through the sole point-of-view of his penis.

Written by Josh Boone (director of Marvel’s upcoming The New Mutants), the plot kicks off in the 1970s and follows the amorous episodes of sheepish film student Terry, budding actress Catherine and the salacious photographer Phil (Shameik Moore), who meet while watching the Godard flick and become fast friends, confidants, artistic collaborators and lovers. If the tale of a ménage à trois and the name Catherine rings a bell, then bingo!, you get a few bonus points: That’s the plot of Truffaut’s Jules and Jim — yet another title cited here in clips and a copycat scene where we see the main characters joyfully running across a bridge.

Terry’s lifelong obsession with Catherine, whom he casts in his ridiculously earnest student film about, well, film and obsession, is what drives The Pretenders forward. Soon enough, the two are sleeping together — that is until Phil steps into the picture and swoops Catherine away, but only so Terry can eventually come back to become her secret lover, ad infinitum, ad nauseam. The tenor of these affairs is so silly that you’d think Franco were making a The Room-style parody about people taking classic art films too seriously.

And yet, in the pic’s risibly dour second half, the yearnings of Terry and his friends wind up crashing and burning against the reality of life, the movie business and the 1980s.

Cue the scene where Terry, now a failed filmmaker, has turned into a bitter film critic but manages to steal a rising starlet (Juno Temple) away from her Hollywood producer husband (Franco, of course) because of a glowing review where he praised her acting. (Note to the Pretenders team: This kind of thing does not happen.)

Cue up other cringe-worthy moments, such as a clichéd, coke-ridden gallery opening featuring Phil’s black-and-white nude photographs of, who else? Catherine. Or a scene that comes way out of left field where Terry heads to Baltimore to confront his alcoholic father (Dennis Quaid, terrifying). Or an entire subplot involving a script written by Terry and Catherine about a detective investigating crimes he may himself have committed that’s called… The Pretender. Or the moment someone gets AIDS. Or the colossal twist of an ending that’s so defiantly unreal it could almost be true.

Not only does the film offer a superficial reading of all the famous movies that inspired it, but there’s also an incredibly bro-ish sentiment to the whole thing, as if Franco and Boone binge-watched half the Criterion Collection while slamming down brewskies on the couch. Early on, they at least try to acknowledge the latent sexism of their material, in a scene where a female student criticizes auteurs like Godard for turning actresses such as Karina into muses to fuel their work.

But that one critique of the male gaze is a single, silenced voice in a movie that otherwise pounds — figuratively and literally — the idea into our heads that film and fornication, in this case involving two men and the femme fatale caught between them, go hand and hand. In Franco’s other attempts at directing (18 and counting, according to Wikipedia), he has shown some understanding of, say, the writings of William Faulkner, the homophobia present in William Friedkin’s Cruising or the aesthetic yearnings and acting sensibility of Tommy Wiseau.

Here, Franco’s view of art house cinema is pure phallic pastiche — a sentiment echoed by the choice to shoot the entire film with what looks like a drool-cam, using a frosted, almost blurred lens effect that perhaps was meant to recreate the texture of old Kodak stock.

Such a look may be due to the digital print or projection at the screening caught at a festival in Paris, but the result is still the same: Unlike what happens in the film when the three lovebirds watch A Woman Is a Woman, nobody watching The Pretenders will fall in love with cinema, or with each other, while sitting through this thing. And if they do, God(ard) spare us whatever results.

Production companies: Rabbit Bandini Films, SSS Entertainment, Yale Productions
Distributor: Cleopatra Entertainment
Cast: Jack Kilmer, Jane Levy, Shameik Moore, James Franco, Juno Temple, Brian Cox, Dennis Quaid, Mustafa Shakir
Director: James Franco
Screenwriter: Josh Boone
Producers: Jay Davis, Katie Leary, Scott Levenson, Jordan Yale Levine, Shaun Sanghani, Vince Jolivette 
Executive producers: Erik Blachford, Lee Broda, Luke Daniels, John D. Hickman, Ryan R. Johnson, Stephen Morgenstern, Austin Renfroe, Joseph Restaino, Jeff Rice, Martin Sprock
Director of photography: Peter Zeitlinger
Production designer: Timothy Whidbee
Costume designer: Brenda Abbandandolo
Music: Mark Kozelek
Casting: Jordan Bass, Lauren Bass

Venue: Champs-Elysées Film Festival, Paris

90 minutes