'Zeroville': Film Review

Far more than zero, but less than the sum of its richly imagined parts.
9/20/2019

James Franco directs and stars in an adaptation of Steve Erickson's novel, which views the New Hollywood of the late '60s and '70s through the eyes of a movie-obsessed, "cine-autistic" seminary student who becomes an in-demand film editor.

Like its source material, a 2007 novel by Los Angeles author and film critic Steve Erickson, Zeroville is steeped in showbiz lore and movie love. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood would have been a fitting title — and like Quentin Tarantino's latest feature, James Franco’s fractures and revisits pop-culture history through a skewed fictional lens. In fact, it begins at nearly the same moment that Tarantino’s picture ends: on an August morning in 1969, just hours after the Manson Family wreaked havoc in the hills above Los Angeles. But this is no burnished wish-fulfillment fantasy; it's a punk-gothic hothouse flower, nourished by the kind of cinephile earnestness that can be swoony, insufferable or liberating, and sometimes all at once.

At its center is a seminary dropout who breaks out of his sheltered, movie-deprived life and becomes a sought-after film editor, finding himself at the center of the American film industry as it catches a new wave of creative energy. Played by Franco, he's an accidental yet purposeful mystic, less of a fool and more of an innocent than, say, Chauncey Gardiner in Being There, to name a famous product of the New Hollywood.

And there's plenty of first-name-only name-dropping in Zeroville, though the screenplay scales back the book's endless game of Name That Hollywood Figure: Francis (Coppola), George (Lucas), Brian (De Palma), Steven (Spielberg) and Bob (Evans) are among those who get mini shout-outs or fleeting screen time.

Franco and screenwriters Paul Felten and Ian Olds have smartly streamlined Erickson's richly imagined story, jettisoning some of the more unwieldy plotlines while staying true to its tonal mix of deadpan comedy and madness-tinged melodrama. It's an unapologetically trippy labyrinth, and as in the novel, not everything adds up.

Arriving after four years on the shelf — the movie's original distributor, Alchemy, folded soon after acquiring it — the myCinema release is not entirely satisfying, but Franco's direction is assured, and he builds a compellingly noirish mood of faded glamour and churning trouble. Working with cinematographer Bruce Thierry Cheung (a frequent collaborator and the director of Don't Come Back From the Moon) and production designer Kristen Adams, and deploying an elegant dirge of a score by Johnny Jewel, the helmer conjures a Lynchian sense of the surreal that unifies the comic drama even when the story is strained.

In key supporting roles, Jacki Weaver, Joey King and an uncredited Will Ferrell deliver especially strong turns. Franco himself hits no false notes in his committed lead performance, but a younger, less well-known actor might have provided a more convincing blank slate as the inscrutable Vikar.

With an apparently dark divinity-school upbringing behind him, Vikar has ditched his birth name, shaved his head and boarded a cross-country bus to Los Angeles, where he aims to trade his architecture studies for a set-building job at the studios. Although he's a man of flat affect and few words, Vikar wears his heart on his sleeve — or actually on his head, which he's had adorned with the tattooed image of one of the most searing close-ups ever to grace the big screen, the kiss between Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun. That American tragedy is the first movie Vikar ever saw — a mere 11 months earlier, and it was a religious experience.

Born again as a cinema fanatic, Vikar arrives in the City of Angels at an inauspicious moment: The opening-credits chords of The Animals' "It's My Life" bleed into the sound of sirens as two rabid LAPD detectives (Danny McBride, Mike Starr) mistake him for a member of the Manson Family. But after this brief setback, things go surprisingly smoothly. Working on the Paramount lot, Vikar is taken under the wing of editor Dotty Langer (a delightful Weaver), a cutter in the mold of Dorothy Spencer or Dede Allen, doyennes whose contributions to the medium are immeasurable and revered yet largely unsung. We should all have such teachers as Dotty. Her lesson in the language of editing, using scenes from Vikar's beloved A Place in the Sun, is one of the film's highlights.

Vikar finds another champion in a high-profile screenwriter known as Viking Man, a cigar-chomping, pistol-brandishing character based on John Milius and played by Seth Rogen in an aptly blustery mode. Recognizing something wild and deep and "cine-autistic" in Vikar, Viking Man summons him to the troubled Philippine set of Apocalypse Now to help with editing. Then it's on to New York, where a smarmily venomous studio production chief, played to the hilt of perfect absurdity by Ferrell (watch him slide from a tirade to a song), needs him to edit a cheesy flick featuring Soledad Palladin (Megan Fox), who Vikar met at a Malibu party and promptly fell in love with.

Zeroville moves through a decade-plus in its protagonist's life, the passing time marked by movie references. This is a story where even a burglar (a droll Craig Robinson) waxes poetic, mid-crime, about the oeuvres of the great auteurs — and, unlike most people Vikar encounters (the idiots!), he doesn't mistake the couple inked on his bald pate for Natalie Wood and James Dean.

An abiding passion for the creativity and hard work that go into filmmaking is the movie's primary sentiment, but there are tempering glimpses of film-fest vagaries and head-on collisions with the business side, embodied by Ferrell's self-important exec. And in Soledad's story, as her name suggests, we get the sadness that can go with the territory. She's an actress whose résumé consists chiefly of "European" films of the vampire lesbian persuasion, and her gaze radiates the almost extinguished fire of career disappointment.

There's a deeper sadness, too. She's a pawn, a prize, a possession, and as a mysterious damaged beauty, she's a movie archetype. The film's meta explorations of this storytelling shorthand travel a range of possibilities, from the profound (clips of Falconetti's terrified close-ups in The Passion of Joan of Arc) to the clichéd (a slo-mo romantic montage).

Fox wisely underplays Soledad's despair, but the love story between her and Vikar is more of a narrative engine than an involving thread. The same can be said for much of the plot, particularly an obsessed Vikar's hypothesis about "a secret movie" in all the movies ever made — an element of the story that's considerably more coherent in the feature than the novel but no more satisfying. Even for a movie in which "Fuck continuity" is a joyous mantra, it's a letdown that this ode to the art and craft of splicing is less than the sum of its parts.

It's Vikar's bond with Soledad's teenage daughter, Zazi (King), that provides the only emotional impact — notably when Zazi, having been awakened to the power of punk after a visit to CBGB with Vikar, takes the mic in an L.A. club to sing a blistering version of The Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog." King turns a few musical minutes into something revealingly explosive.

At its core, and in varying degrees of persuasiveness, Zeroville is about the way films infuse our waking lives as well as our dreams. Vikar's soul-shaking art house experiences are almost always alone, a refreshing emphasis on the liminal, intensely personal quality of moviegoing as opposed to the oft-touted communal aspect. 

At the same time, for all the cinema theory, criticism and history peppered through the screenplay (Gus Van Sant cameos as an archivist!), the movie is vividly attuned to the physical aspects of pre-digital filmmaking. Franco takes time to savor the whirs and clicks and crisp thwacks of the Moviola, the shining reels of celluloid and acetate unspooling from their metal canisters. It's lovely stuff.

The story's final, intended aha moment falls woefully flat, but capping this flawed valentine to artistic independence is a closing-credits nod to Easy Rider, especially poignant so soon after Peter Fonda's death.

Production companies: Patriot Pictures, Rabbit Bandini Productions
Distributor: myCinema
Cast: James Franco, Megan Fox, Seth Rogen, Joey King, Danny McBride, Craig Robinson, Jacki Weaver, Mike Starr, Dave Franco, Gus Van Sant, Will Ferrell
Director: James Franco
Screenwriters: Paul Felten, Ian Olds, based on the novel by Steve Erickson
Producers: Michael Mendelsohn, Vince Jolivette, Caroline Aragon 
Executive producers: Scott Reed, Wendy Rutland, Ron Singer
Director of photography: Bruce Thierry Cheung
Production designer: Kristen Adams
Costume designer: David Page
Editors: Curtis Clayton, Joe Murphy, Matt Diezel
Composer: Johnny Jewel
Casting director: Cynthia Huffman

Rated R, 96 minutes