Combustible Celluloid
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With: Jane Levy, Shameik Moore, Jack Kilmer, Juno Temple, James Franco, Brian Cox, Dennis Quaid
Written by: Josh Boone
Directed by: James Franco
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 95
Date: 10/04/2019

The Pretenders (2019)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Rogue Wave

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

James Franco's love triangle is clearly enamored of film history and the French New Wave, and this enthusiasm helps somewhat, but the characters never really come to life or connect with one another.

In The Pretenders, Terry (Jack Kilmer) is a young film student in 1979, obsessed with Jean-Luc Godard and the films of the French New Wave. At a showing of A Woman Is a Woman, he meets the beautiful Catherine (Jane Levy), but fails to get her phone number. He also meets photographer Phil (Shameik Moore), who witnessed the failure and promises to help.

In a few weeks they find her, and Terry writes a short film for her to star in, while Phil also finds himself attracted to her and starts putting his own moves on her. A few years later, they meet again at an opening of Phil's work. When Terry becomes an item with actress Victoria (Juno Temple), it piques Catherine's interest in him. Then, in 1986, fate takes a twist when Phil falls ill and Catherine vanishes.

The trio in The Pretenders are clearly inspired by Francois Truffaut's 1962 Jules and Jim, but without its freshness or its fine balance, they come across as more like types than full-blooded characters. Not to mention that several melodramatic touches feel tacked-on, rather than organic extensions of the story. And smaller roles, filled by Temple, Brian Cox, Dennis Quaid, and Franco himself, end up as mere place-holders.

The movie tribute stuff, especially the little dance number from Godard's Band of Outsiders, is fun, and Franco attempts a few arty shots here and there in homage to the freedom and energy of that 1960s movement. But as a female film student notes after a screening of Terry's film, the intellect is missing here, and the movie is not much more than an empty exercise.

This, along with Franco's Zeroville, were both rescued after having been shelved, and both are in the spirit of the French New Wave. But Zeroville is a more reckless and sillier journey through movie history; it takes more risks and feels less stuck than this one. The Pretenders isn't terrible, but viewers would be better off checking out some early Godard and Truffaut.

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