By Eric Kohn | Indiewire January 19, 2013 at 11:59PM
William Friedkin's 1980 East Village crime drama "Cruising," in which Al Pacino memorably goes undercover as a gay leather enthusiast to apprehend a killer, remains as divisive and controversial as it was upon its initial release. "Interior. Leather Bar," a 60-minute collaboration between queer filmmaker Travis Mathews ("I Want Your Love") and James Franco, aims to reenact the 40 minutes Friedkin cut from the film in order to secure an R rating, footage that was subsequently lost. In doing so, it also attempts to provoke strong reactions from the audience, but with far greater intellectual finesse. Instead of merely presenting imagery bound to titillate and create unease in equal measures, "Interior. Leather Bar" takes the form of a behind-the-scenes peek at the production to question the societal forces that engender the material's contentious nature. As a fleeting essay on sexual biases, it encourages a thoughtful debate, but leaves too many questions dangling to solidify into much beyond a dashed experiment.
That description pertains to any number of the rushed art projects that pepper Franco's career of late, and despite its shortcomings, "Interior. Leather Bar" holds together better than most of them (perhaps thanks to Mathews' handle on the material). The movie is considerably smarter and more engaging than its premise may suggest. While positioned as a recreation of 40 minutes, far less leather bar footage actually figures into the production.
Instead, we spend most of the time with lead actor Val Lauren, an old Franco chum (and the star of the Franco-director Sal Mineo biopic "Sal") who accepts the Pacino role in the project. While the cool-headed Mathews pulls together the practical ingredients of the shoot, Franco and Lauren provide the proverbial "straight" perspective, engaging in an ongoing dialogue about whether their involvement in the project puts their heterosexuality at risk. Rather than drifting between reality and fiction, the movie predominantly functions as a conventional documentary on the hazy nature of sexual identity in contemporary society.
To that end, it succeeds. The dialogue in question, however, unfolds with a loose, fragmented style that only connects in individual moments. Early on, Franco establishes the precedents of their intentions by citing "The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life," by his former Yale professor Michael Warner, which engages with the idea that queer culture evades normalization by definition. As Mathews puts it, "assimilation into straight culture erases the queerness of that world." So while hordes of men prep for the shoot by strapping themselves up in various revealing garb and eventually engage in hardcore antics, Mathews' editing frequently emphasizes Franco and Lauren's confused reaction shots, eking out the presumed dichotomy of sexual desires.
The results are intriguing for the very same reason that Lauren appears uncomfortable about his role in the project. "Interior. Leather Bar" visualizes the discourse its subjects struggle to put into words. Mathews says the project aims to help "inform choices," but mainly showcases choices that have already been made. Lauren voices the central issue plaguing the movie with the biggest question it leaves unresolved -- whether the filmmakers intend to use the footage "to make a certain point or want it to be what it is."
Ultimately, "Interior. Leather Bar" does a fine job at formulating this core issue while leaving it somewhat frustratingly unresolved. The on-camera discussions eventually get redundant to the point where the project's gimmicky nature takes over. A glimpse of S&M action leads Franco and Lauren to huddle in the back and check their biases; over the course of the conversation, they hit on a few insightful points (Franco ranting about "the straight, normative behavior fucking installed in my brain") while heading down distracting pathways better left on the editing floor. The invocation of Franco's celebrity comes across as a distraction. "You're starring in a Disney movie, for chrissakes!" Lauren spouts, in one of a few moments where Franco's upcoming role "Oz, the Great and Powerful" comes into play. "That's what's giving it half its power," Franco replies with a smirk. But is it? "Interior. Leather Bar" largely works not because of Franco's involvement but in spite of it.
Criticwire grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Premiering at Sundance's New Frontiers section and set to continue its festival life at Berlin next month, "Interior. Leather Bar" is bound to provoke the same kind of dialogue found in the movie, but its concise running time and graphic material suggest its post-festival life lies mainly on digital platforms.