REVIEW: Zeroville [2019]

Score: 4/10 | ★ ½


Rating: R | Runtime: 96 minutes | Release Date: September 20th, 2019 (USA)
Studio: myCinema
Director(s): James Franco
Writer(s): Paul Felten & Ian Olds / Steve Erickson (novel)

“Your head precedes you”

An autistic architecture student at a seminary in Pennsylvania watches his first ever film (A Place in the Sun) and has an experience akin to hearing the voice of God. This new world is opened to Jerome “Vikar” Isaac and he decides he needs to be a part of it. So he travels to Hollywood with the model of a church he constructed under his arm, arriving in this wonderland of magic twenty years too late. The Hollywood of 1970 simply isn’t the same one that housed his fresh-faced idols Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor (their faces tattooed on the back of his head). Now it’s about over-bearing financiers, artistic individualism, and technological advances. It’s also a place where a weird guy like him can earn a happily-ever-after.

Based on Steve Erickson‘s novel, Zeroville looks to bring this character’s uniquely out-of-place innocence to life. Adapted by Paul Felten and Ian Olds, the screenplay begins with Vikar’s (James Franco) California arrival at the precinct desk of two cops accusing him of murdering Sharon Tate. It’s a wake-up call that the land of love and dreams isn’t quite as sun-drenched as he may have hoped on his cross-country ride. But it’s also an absurd scene consisting of Danny McBride and Mike Starr berating him for what I assume to be laughs. Franco—who also directs—is sitting in front of them with tears in his eyes first because he’s scared and second because these guys think the tattoo on his head is James Dean and Natalie Wood.

There’s supposedly commentary in that revelation on the page, but it’s lost here on-screen. Here it’s a reason to see Vikar’s sadness at the death of the industry he literally just discovered and elation whenever someone who shares his nostalgia serendipitously crosses his path. That this could be an alcoholic artisan editor Dotty Langer (Jacki Weaver), a wildly outspoken screenwriter “Viking Man” (Seth Rogen in a role based on John Millius), or a nameless burglar (Craig Robinson) who happens to be a fan of cinema should give you an idea towards how off-the-wall things get. Franco is never able to bring it all together as more than a surreal nightmare of disjointed sketches flirting with hilarity that his character lives through without ever experiencing any growth.

But maybe that’s intentional? Maybe Erickson and company can’t let Vikar grow because his view of the past is what makes him special. If that were the case, however, we’d need to care about what he’s doing to change those around him. Since he doesn’t do that either, the whole thing becomes a fever dream of random encounters paused for thirty minutes in the middle as an affair with Soledad Paladin (Megan Fox) commences that includes an unseen love triangle (with Will Ferrell‘s producer Rondell), a daughter who ages without warning into Joey King so suddenly I didn’t know if time passed or continuity was broken, and a war between Vikar’s obsessions: his craft at the edit bay versus his undying love for this enigmatic actress.

Did I mention he becomes a film editor? After starting in set design, Dotty takes him under her wing because of his “old guard” sensibilities on quality. That he becomes a savant is either a cosmic joke on him or critique on how clueless those in charge of this new Hollywood (namely Rondell’s singing buffoon) are to talk themselves in circles and shift their perspective on Vikar from hack to genius. I guess it’s a little of both since I kept waiting for the whole journey to be proven a fantasy imagined by someone bound by a straitjacket in an Oslo, Norway insane asylum. That’s how wacky the juxtaposition of Vikar’s deadpan stoicism against colorful screwballs is. I needed him to be hallucinating because I knew I wasn’t.

Zeroville tries to be Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but it can’t when everything happens in earnest. Vikar isn’t taking drugs—this is just who he is. And the people around him aren’t hyperbolic embellishments filtered through his mind. The film therefore becomes a farce with Vikar in the middle as the target of our laughter rather than our respect for his brilliance. He becomes the joke whether or not people enjoy his company, help him, or laud his work. Maybe that’s the point too. Maybe he’s a symbol of a dying era that must be extinguished for good because his lingering is screwing things up like Marlon Brando giving Francis Ford Coppola a heart attack. Why then is his editing unlike anything anyone has ever seen?

Is he the past or the future? Franco and company can’t seem to make up their minds. So we’re left watching Vikar act unaffected when everyone chews him out. We watch him become the person everyone counts on because they know he’s not going anywhere. He’s exploitable and that fact transcends his being someone they actually like. It’s almost as though Vikar exists to help them move forward whether that means their career, lives, or deaths. And when they all find themselves at the place they seek, he no longer has value since his own existence was always secondary to theirs. That’s an interesting thought if it were true in a meaningful way. Unfortunately for the film, however, purpose is lost beneath its clashing tones and hollow aesthetic.


photography:
courtesy of myCinema

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