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With: James Franco, Megan Fox, Seth Rogen, Jacki Weaver, Will Ferrell, Danny McBride, Dave Franco, Thomas Ian Nicholas, Craig Robinson, Joey King, Horatio Sanz, Scott Haze, Stewart Strauss, Thaila Ayala
Written by: Paul Felten, Ian Olds, based on a novel by Steve Erickson
Directed by: James Franco
MPAA Rating: R for language throughout, some sexual content/nudity and brief drug use
Running Time: 96
Date: 09/20/2019

Zeroville (2019)

3 Stars (out of 4)

All Over the 'Place'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

James Franco is a mystery, and fascinating to me. He may be a modern renaissance man, but with the hint of a charlatan. He teaches, writes books, writes screenplays, directs movies, and acts in other people's movies, without ever seeming to get tired. Many of these projects are not easy, or light, as witness his movie adaptations of McCarthy (Child of God) and Faulkner (As I Lay Dying). He remains loyal to a group of acting friends, including his brother Dave, and yet he seems to go it alone, like his portrayal of Tommy Wiseau in The Disaster Artist.

He has certainly tackled the topic of the cinema before, but now in Zeroville — a movie whose origins are as mysterious as the movie itself — he has turned inward, taking his best stab at a stream-of-consciousness Jean-Luc Godard movie, part commentary, part fractured, fragmented story. I can't even figure out how to rate it other than to say that I think it's probably not a very good movie, but that I kind of love it.

It deals with a certain time in movie history, but even more it deals with a certain kind of love for movies that I myself have, as well as a love for other artistic expressions. During the movie's middle section the main character, Vikar, played by Franco, goes to a showing of my favorite film, Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc and weeps at its power, and then moments later is on the floor of CBGB witnessing a ferocious performance by Iggy Pop and the Stooges (one of my favorite bands), performing "I Want to Be Your Dog." Both the movie and the song return again later in the story.

In any case, Vikar is a former seminarian who, as an adult saw his first movie — George Stevens's A Place in the Sun — and it changed his life. With a tattoo of Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor on the back of his bald head, he heads to Hollywood in 1969, where he quickly lands a job building sets. He stays in a hotel room where Clift once stayed; one night a burglar (Craig Robinson) surprises him, but Vikar gets the jump on him and ties him up. Together they watch TV and the burglar educates Vikar on the glories of Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard, and then John Ford's My Darling Clementine.

While watching the shooting of Love Story on the studio lot, he meets editor Dotty (Jacki Weaver), who also worked on A Place in the Sun, and she shows him the craft, and the artistry, of editing. She explains that many movies are forgotten, some are remembered, and some — like The Third Man and Ernst Lubitsch's The Shop Around the Corner — perhaps existed on some higher plane, before they were ever even made. Vikar also meets Viking Man (Seth Rogen), a screenwriter who knows a group of up-and-coming filmmakers that resemble Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, and Martin Scorsese.

At a party, Vikar is dazzled by Soledad Paladin (Megan Fox), and begins to confuse images of her with images of Elizabeth Taylor and Maria Falconetti. Viking Man invites Vikar to the Philippines to work on a movie that resembles Apocalypse Now, and then he gets a call from a smarmy producer, Rondell (Will Ferrell), to return to Hollywood to work on the latest Soledad Paladin picture. He becomes obsessed with getting it perfect and nearly loses his job. He begins seeing images of Soledad in every film and maniacally begins collecting films and cutting out the single frames in which she appears.

He learns from a film historian (Gus Van Sant, who directed Franco in Milk) the true history of The Passion of Joan of Arc, and connects it to an asylum in Oslo, where, coincidentally, Soledad once stayed. Meanwhile, he becomes something of a father figure to Soledad's fast-growing daughter, Zazi (Joey King), takes her to see Jodorowsky's The Holy Mountain, and watches her perform "I Want to Be Your Dog" at CBGB. The movie finishes up at the dawn of the 1980s with the mysteries and powers of cinema as intact as ever. He runs into the burglar once again, who, instead of stealing Vikar's money, recommends that he see Raging Bull. Then, Montgomery Clift (brother Dave) appears to him.

According to several internet sources, this movie was actually filmed all the way back in 2014 and wound up lost when a distributor went bankrupt. Only recently the company myCinema rescued it and gave it a release in 2019. The movie already seems weirdly out of time, and this odd little detail only makes it seem even more so, like a dream that you're not quite sure you saw or remember properly. It's strange to consider that this movie and Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood are set in the same place at the same time, and there's even a reference to Sharon Tate in Zeroville, but the two movies could not be more different. This one exists somewhere between Tarantino and Godard.

When describing this movie, things like performance don't really enter into it. Whereas Franco received some Oscar buzz for his deep-dive performance as Tommy Wiseau, nothing in Zeroville would inspire Academy members to cast a vote. Franco looks like a serial killer here with his bald head, icky 1970s mustache, and a perpetual sullen look, and the other characters drift in and out of the movie like clouds, leaving only trails of profanity and cigar smoke. The lunatic editing might earn some notice, essentially because it's also a celebration of editing and thus calls attention to itself.

Overall this is a movie more for hardcore — and I do mean hardcore — cinema buffs than Oscar trivia hounds. If you have ever watched Sunset Boulevard and excitedly relayed the fact to whomever would listen that the movie within the movie is actually Queen Kelly, which was directed by Erich von Stroheim, who plays the butler, or if you ever argued about the merits of John Ford's The Searchers or wept at Joan of Arc's plight, or if your love of the cinema is as strong as anything else in life, then you'll be welcome in Zeroville.

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