SSIFF Review: James Franco's Wacky Old Hollywood Fable 'Zeroville'
by Alex Billington
September 28, 2019
There's no place like old Hollywood… Zeroville is actor / writer / director James Franco's latest cinematic endeavor, a feature film adapted from Steve Erickson's novel of the same name, a dream-like story that starts out in 1969 and drifts into the 1970s in Hollywood. Franco's film is as wacky and as weird as expected, especially considering James Franco has been churning out films (as a director) by the dozen over the last few years, and yet none of them seem to make any real impact. The Disaster Artist being one of the few exceptions. Has anyone seen any of his last two - Future World or The Pretenders? Since it was playing at the San Sebastian Film Festival, I took a chance and went to see Zeroville and you know, it's not that bad. It doesn't deserve the hate it's getting (in other reviews) but there's nothing really that interesting in it, either.
Watching Zeroville feels a bit like a hallucination, some kind of weird fever dream a bit like Midnight in Paris. We follow a naive, carefree young man named Vikar (Franco) who arrives in Hollywood hoping to be an actor. He hasn't experienced much in his life yet, and his trademark is the distinct tattoos of Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor inked right onto his shaved head. He's a die-hard film nerd longing for the golden oldies, and finds himself working at a studio as a set construction shop assistant. His life changes forever when he meets a veteran film editor, Dotti played by Jacki Weaver, who takes him under her wing and teaches him how to edit 35mm films. He also meets a beautiful actress, Soledad played by Megan Fox, who becomes his only other obsession outside of movies because she reminds him of Elizabeth Taylor. Of course.
The film drifts around Hollywood and takes us through some of the iconic moments in film history. There's an amusing but also incredibly awkward scene set at a party where George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, and a bunch of other filmmakers bluntly talk about the state of cinema and make fun of the films each one is making. It's kind of funny, but at times feels more like a Weird Al Yankovic spoof than an homage or tribute to old Hollywood. Which isn't to say it's bad, just a bit ridiculous. By the end of the film, including the eye-roll-inducing last shot, it's obvious that Franco is having fun and is playing around with this story. We're not supposed to take the film seriously, even though it is a serious story, it's more of a dream that throws in some wacky revisionist cinephile history. The kind of dream every film nerd has had at one point or another.
Honestly, I thought I might hate this film but it's playfully fun. Franco knows he's making something weird and obvious in its references. It's indulgent and funny; part satire, part old Hollywood romance, part movie-making extravaganza. It doesn't deserve to be totally written off, and it doesn't deserve to be called stupid, especially once you realize the ridiculousness is exactly what Franco is going for. He plays an "innocent" person in the film which makes it a bit of a challenge to disconnect from that character and recognize he's also directing, and he knows what he's doing. Jodorowsky's The Holy Mountain has a good cameo - perhaps the best "real" cameo in the film. Some nice creative touches and self-deprecating humor are quite good and make it entertaining. It's not so bad, really, just strange. Give it a look, you might get something from it, too.
Alex's SSIFF 2019 Rating: 6 out of 10
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