If one were to judge “Lost in London” solely on the impressive technical feat of producing a live feature film in a single take over the course of two hours, “Lost in London” would be a resounding success. Unfortunately, that’s not how movies work. While Woody Harrelson’s directorial debut experiment went off largely without a hitch, it’s unclear if anyone would care about “Lost in London” if it weren’t filmed live. Despite its unique production, the script (written by Harrelson) suffers from a plot line that drags even as its star hustles to keep up, Hollywood insider jokes that fall flat despite being low-hanging fruit, and a culturally tone-deaf script that is not worth straining to hear over the canned background noise.
Inspired by the true events of one “wild night” Harrelson had in 2012 (celebrities are so crazy!), the movie begins with Harrelson, as himself, exiting a West End theater where he is acting in a play, to meet up with his wife, Laura (Eleanor Matsuura), for dinner at the confidently named La Petite Vérité. (If this is vérité, the Maysles are rolling in their graves). Harrelson is in a rush to get her home to the hotel, so he can “take advantage of her,” but his true aim is to divert her attention from the tabloid cover splashed with his mug, along with the three “birds” he supposedly bedded. The camera pivots to follow two young women down a spiral staircase to the ladies room, where they have retreated to powder their noses and hate themselves (“I used to hate my nose. Now I hate my chin”). When they exit, having loudly discussed Harrelson’s scandal, we see Laura exiting a stall and grabbing up the tabloid in question.
Once back upstairs, an unnamed Arab prince beseeches Harrelson to join him for just one drink, which Laura decides he should do after she no longer wants anything to do with him. He reluctantly obeys, and they agree to meet at the hotel at midnight to talk. Thus begins an epic all night saga that takes him from a Bohemian-themed after-party to — actually, he pretty much just goes to that one party and then goes to jail. Sure, a live movie might not have the luxury of using multiple shooting locations, but if Harrelson is trying to invoke “After Hours” or even “The Hangover,” this crazy night is surprisingly static, though not uneventful.
At the club, he runs into his “best friend” Owen Wilson (though Wilson insists his best friend is Wes Anderson). That begins an insider baseball repartee concerning whose movies are better, providing the film’s closest thing to a comedic exchange. Jokes this easy should be funnier. Hollywood satire can be deliciously fun — just look at the popularity of HBO’s “Entourage” — but “Lost in London” could have used a little more Ari Gold and a little less name-dropping. Celebrities making fun of themselves works much better on late night.
With talk of chakras and breathing and human connection, Harrelson is clearly attempting to say something, though exactly what is unclear. But the movie’s wealth of racially insensitive and otherwise middling jokes don’t qualify it as a comedy either. The character of Laura endures at least three Asian jokes during her short time onscreen, (“Asians are the masters of hiding emotion”), and a character named Saeed is repeatedly referred to as “Seaweed.” To top it all off, the entire plot basically revolves around a philandering rich white guy who eventually keeps his wife after walking out of jail scot-free.
There are absurdist details that hint at Harrelson’s obvious love of cinema, like a particularly funny sight gag that sends restaurant-goers toppling to the ground after Harrelson’s kids tie everyone’s shoelaces together, or anachronistic flashes of choreographed dancers in a club stairwell. Cinematographer Nigel Willoughby (“Downton Abbey”) deserves singling out for infusing his single shot with lively energy. Willoughby stays tight on Harrelson and circles the action without dizzying the viewer. At times, the camera almost takes on a persona.
As a director, Harrelson seems to be grasping at elements of far better movies. The live component, while impressively executed, rarely alters the movie in any meaningful way. Reaching for something between “Victoria,” Sebastien Schipper’s single night, single take drama, and “The Hangover,” he lands with a soundless thud that is neither here nor there.
“Lost in London” played live in movie theaters on Thursday, January 19th.