Throughout the recent reboot of HBO’s “Project Greenlight,” which wound up Sunday night followed by a Monday airing of the indie film being made on the show, “The Leisure Class,” you could count on Ben Affleck being the smartest guy in the room and producer Effie Brown keeping things interesting.
Any woman who has ever had a role on a movie set (in my 20s I served as unit publicist on several movies) will see how Brown illustrates the ways women in power are perceived by men. A veteran of some 17 indie productions, several of them at HBO, Brown knows what she is doing. What she doesn’t do is defer, couch, soften, or kowtow. She just calls it as she sees it, and you witness how hard that is for the white men around her to handle. They reflexively support each other —and want to tune her out.
One exception is HBO production exec Len Amato, who knows what needs to get done and respects Brown’s role, part of which is budget overseer. While Affleck maneuvers diplomatically through the series, Matt Damon gets caught in Brown’s crosshairs.
The young and entitled director of “The Leisure Class,” Jason Mann, who landed the gig by being the filmmaker with the strongest vision for what he wanted to achieve, could not accept the word “no” from Brown, who was the one he had to tangle with the most. He perceived her as getting in his way, no matter what she did to try and help him get his movie made. He fought for 35 mm on a low-budget indie film that was largely being seen on HBO (although there is a short theatrical run) and actually got HBO to back him, but it cost him two sorely needed shooting days. And in the final episode (“Hug and Release”) when Brown suggests where the weaknesses are (the female characters), Mann ignores her. When Amato tells him the changes he wants made (along the same lines), Mann resists him too, and only submits to his demands (and authority) because HBO’s paying for his movie.
On Twitter, Brown clarified after the final episode that she while she (wisely) did not show up for the day of reshoots, she did not quit the movie altogether: “Ugg this episode is revisionist history! I didn’t leave the film. I just didn’t do the reshoots. Mix, Color and ADR—I was there.”
What amused me most about the series was the way you can see what actually happens and then watch the various players dissemble to make the best of it, trying to spin to their best advantage. When Affleck visits the set you can tell that he’s bored. And when Damon and Affleck deliver their notes as diplomatically as possible, you KNOW the movie is bad. Affleck suggests that an airy comedy of manners is one of the hardest things to achieve, a high bar. Correct.
“The Leisure Class” (currently at 24 on Metacritic) technically looks OK. Mann understands where to put the camera. But rather than obsess about angles and lighting, he should have been more in tune with his characters. The movie improves a tad as it fitfully lurches along, but finally fails to pull us into empathy with its two lead brothers, much less the women of the piece. Most of the characters are not likable at all. We do not care about any of them.
Finally, Mann is an all-too typical film school grad: egomaniacal, driven and tone-deaf to the people around him who are trying to help. And the industry we keep wailing about continues to reward men like him at the expense of a lot of talented women.
Similarly dispiriting was “The Chair,” created by original “Project Greenlight” producer Chris Moore; his spin-off series pitted two filmmakers against each other, one a talentless man with a rabid YouTube following, the other a gifted woman NYU film school grad whose movie earned strong reviews. Guess which one took home the $250,000 prize?
TOH TV critic Matt Brennan, who did not watch the “Project Greenlight” series, checked out the HBO movie; here’s his brief review:
It’s only a few minutes into “The Leisure Class” that the dissolute Leonard (Tom Bell), with circles under his eyes so dark he might’ve just dusted himself off from a fistfight, turns up at an opulent country estate to disrupt his brother’s impending nuptials. Having weaseled his way into a prominent political family, William (Ed Weeks), a rather humorless con artist, is eager to see him off, going so far as to offer his estranged sibling a $10,000 payoff, but Leonard’s more interested in flirting with the bride-to-be, Fiona (Bridget Regan), and her sister, Carolyn (Melanie Zanetti), in the sun-kissed garden.
“You can’t put a price on fun,” he smirks. “Can you?” Judging by director Jason Mann’s lousy first feature, unfortunately, it turns out the answer is yes, you can, and it’s more than “Project Greenlight” could afford.
Since I missed the HBO reality series’ contentious fourth season, which concluded Sunday, I came to “The Leisure Class” more or less cold—though, from what I gather, the sparring behind the scenes surpassed anything captured on camera. I suppose I hoped that “The Leisure Class” would prove to be a film worth fighting about, or at least that the disputatious production might create a few on-screen sparks, but on both counts I was sorely disappointed. Even at 83 minutes, I found it almost unbearable.