The James Franco-directed Zeroville (2019) fails on the comedy aspects it attempts to mark but succeeds on its elements of mystery within what feels like an accidental emphasis on the story’s heavy drama. James Franco directs and stars as an ex-communicated seminarian, Ike “Vikar” Jerome, who comes to Hollywood during the same August days of 1969 where Sharon Tate was killed by the Manson “family”. Ike’s arrival on this day is only played as a pun that misses its mark, leaving the relevance of the horrific murders meaningless to the overall story, but imperative for its perspective.
Zeroville opens with “LA 1969” superimposed as a title card on-screen, we then see Rondell (Will Ferrell), a movie studio production head, painting a comical portrait for a skin-headed Ike about a motion picture that’s on the fringe of being scrapped. He pitches the project to Ike, with an emphasis on its lackadaisical crew and absent director. This scene occurs later in the plot, and Franco takes us in a flashback to Ike entering Hollywood as a vagabond through a montage: licking his favorite Hollywood star of Montgomery Clift on Hollywood Boulevard, attending movie theatres, sleeping on the rooftop of a house. All of this occurs until Ike is arrested by two LAPD cops named Slim & Burly (Danny McBride, Mike Starr), who slam a headshot of the real-life Sharon Tate in front of Ike in an interrogation room, screaming at him with inquiries as to where he was on the night of her murder – a failed attempt yet again, that misses the mark of a gag, but nonetheless reminds us of where we are in terms of a timeline. Ike is discharged and he shows up to his recently acquired job as a set designer for Paramount Pictures on Melrose Avenue in Hollywood. “Welcome to Hollywood, Kid. Glamourous.” Ike’s supervisor says, sarcastically, as Ike roams through a full-blown construction site that looks like a Home Depot store.
On the studio backlot, Ike meets Dotty Langer (Jacki Weaver), a film editor, in addition to The Viking Man (Seth Rogen), who portrays a fictional version of John Milius – a screenwriter who came to prominence in the ‘70s for writing Apocalypse Now (1979) and Conan The Barbarian (1982). Ike is obsessed with the actor Montgomery Clift, to the point where he has a tattoo of him and Elizabeth Taylor on the back of his shaved head from A Place in the Sun (1951). Ike is fascinated by Montgomery Clift so much so, that he stays in room 928 at The Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, the same room where Montgomery Clift once stayed.
James Franco’s directing style is artistic, in the sense that he likes to break the narrative chronological form with dreamlike visions. Every time Ike shuts his eyes or goes to sleep, he dreams of something vivid, and Franco captures the imagery with flair. There’s a clever scene that passes by far too quickly, when Ike goes to a house party on the beach and sits down with actors portraying the real-life Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas and Brian De Palma lounging around the living room with alcohol and drugs spread about. Each of these Hollywood New Wave directors from the ‘70s pitch their future story ideas out loud, and do so without saying each other’s names. It’s up to the audience to be sharp enough to recall what’s occurring; Steven pitches Jaws (1975) and Martin pitches Taxi Driver (1976) – classic movies that were yet to be made. Seth Rogen’s Viking Man Milius ridicules all their story ideas as trash with outrageous dismissals by brandishing a gun and firing it off into a piece of furniture. Ike takes an entire bottle of El Jimador Tequila to the head, after locking eyes with actress Soledad Paladin (Megan Fox) and seizing the moment by engaging her with conversation. Ike’s romantic obsession with Soledad becomes the centerpiece of Zeroville, with drama and mystery revolving around their love.
“Movies represent all times. But the making of any movie, is always in the here, and now.” Dotty Langer says to Ike, after she agrees to teach him film editing on the Moviola – a machine that cuts the original film camera negative to match the edits in the work print. “Fuck continuity.” Dotty teaches Ike, which becomes a mantra throughout Zeroville, in reference to “Continuity Editing” – a filmmaking term that pertains to editing a story by creating spatially and temporally comprehensible chains of shots and actions in narrative filmmaking. James Franco’s directing style in Zeroville clearly adheres to the mantra aforementioned, as do many art films that move above and beyond a chronological narrative structure with non-linear editing techniques that disrupt the spatial time continuum. Franco has keen interests in making films about characters coming to Hollywood in hopes of success; characters who have a dream, such as Ike, or Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero in The Disaster Artist (2017).
But, thanks to Dotty, Ike is no longer a set designer and now a film editor. Ike receives a phone call from The Viking Man John Milius (Seth Rogen) on the Philippines set of a Vietnam war movie he wrote called “Heart of Darkness” – a faux name for Francis Coppola’s war epic Apocalypse Now (1979). Viking Man Milius gives Ike a profound piece of wisdom on-the-phone, after Ike refuses to leave Paramount Studios in Hollywood. “Don’t you get it? This is Hollywood. Manila. Paris. Tokyo. Fucking Norway. Everywhere is Hollywood. The only place that isn’t Hollywood is Hollywood.” This blows Ike’s mind and is enough to convince him to fly to Manila.
A plethora of shocking cameo performances pass through Zeroville; Dave Franco plays Montgomery Clift in a dreamlike hallucination in Ike’s mind, Craig Robinson plays a burglar, Gus Van Sant plays a Film Archive Curator, not to mention Will Ferrell, and Joey King plays Zazi – Soledad’s daughter. Over a dozen references to classical films and filmmaking terminology and techniques are mentioned throughout the film in the form of tributes that do nothing to support the progression of the narrative. The admiration of The Three Stooges (1960) and the representation of Hollywood’s Golden Era with Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), a live review of Raging Bull (1980) from Craig Robinson the Burglar, a reference from Will Ferrell’s studio executive character, Rondell, to John Badham’s Saturday Night Fever (1977), “I really like that disco dance movie you’re doing, who’s that actor, John Travolina? Those moves.” A host of tributes and honorary shout outs to Hollywood’s Golden past that don’t necessarily translate onto the silver screen as good as it must have in Steven Erickson’s novel by the same title, which this movie is adapted from.
Zeroville is a story about filmmaking that contains a heavily dramatic undertone filled with a cast of comedic actors. The story spans from Hollywood, to the Philippines and New York. The film comes full circle to the opening scene when Rondell hires Ike to edit his latest motion picture. In the editing room, Ike discovers the movie is starring Soledad (Megan Fox), and he falls in love. Let the drama, jealousy and mystery games begin. There’s stylish filmmaking techniques employed with great effort on the part of James Franco’s directing, making a screen adaptation from a story that’s meant to pay honor to classical movie stars and definitive films of Hollywood’s Golden Era of the ‘50s and the New Wave of the ‘70s. At times, Zeroville plays like an homage or a eulogy. James Franco’s portrayal of Ike is one-dimensional; he keeps the same facial expression throughout a plot that supposedly spans 11 years from 1969-1980. It doesn’t look or feel like 11 years, considering Franco keeps a shaved head throughout the entire film, while he and almost every other character don’t appear to age a single day.
Nevertheless, it’s important to note that Zeroville was filmed in 2014. It was slated for release by an independent distributor, Alchemy, in 2016, but since the company filed for bankruptcy, it took until April of 2019 when the distributor myCinema announced the film’s release. On the surface, Zeroville is a story about a man that comes to Hollywood, becomes an editor, falls in love with an actress, and struggles with alcoholism while engaging in conflicts with a studio executive. The film attempts to hit a comedic mark and falls short. The mood attempts to be pensive; its tone wistful, with certain sequences feeling vague and unconvincingly improvised.
Grade: D | 65% | 1 Star | Satisfactory