The biggest problem with “Zeroville” — the one to which the film’s innumerable other, smaller problems can all be traced back — is that James Franco was all wrong for it. Adapted from Steve Erickson’s brilliant and hypnotic 2007 novel of the same name, this is a story about someone who thinks that movies are the most precious things in the universe; someone who believes that cinema reveals the work of God, and that celluloid hides the secrets of all creation in the space between sprocket holes. Franco, on the other hand, has always maintained a somewhat messier “throw shit at the wall and see what sticks” approach to artistic creation. Prolific to the point of self-parody before reports of sexually exploitative behavior slowed him down, he’s been emboldened by a digital culture that rewards volume and encourages disposability.
That isn’t meant to be a criticism so much as a statement of fact. Franco is a creature of the 21st century, far better equipped to pay homage to “The Room” than to solve the hidden mysteries of George Stevens’ “A Place in the Sun.” He’s a capable director, and he can be an extraordinary actor when the role suits him, but his talents — whatever they may be — are wildly misspent on this project, a star-studded disaster that reduces one of the most fantastical books ever written about film into the stuff of a bad Lana Del Rey song.
Shot in the fall of 2014, at the height of Franco’s creative mania, “Zeroville” is far more satisfying as a haunted object — as the ugly ghost of an inescapable past — than it is as an actual movie. It unfolds like a bootlegged sequel to “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” the threadbare story beginning in the weeks after the Manson Family murders and then nominally invoking the wayward spirit of a culture that’s lost in the purgatory between death and rebirth.
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Franco plays Vikar, a “cine-autistic” wanderer who rolls into Hollywood with nothing but a tattoo of Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift stretched across the back of his head. He saw his first movie 11 months ago, and now he gets violent whenever anyone mistakes the ink stain on his skull for Natalie Wood. In Erickson’s book, Vikar would rage against dismal cinema and attack people for disparaging his favorite classics, but Franco’s version of the character — nothing more than a mustache and a monotone — is much less of a savant; it’s as if Vikar can’t afford to go ballistic at the thought of a bad film because, in the back of his mind, he dimly suspects that he’s in one.
Vikar is in Tinsel Town for about two minutes before he crosses paths with a weary but nurturing editor named Dotty (Jacki Weaver, delivering the only performance here that has even an ounce of real soul to it). She in turn introduces him to Viking Man, a Times Square caricature of John Milius who Seth Rogen plays to cigar-chomping perfection, and the alpha male auteur is so bemused by his weird new friend that he drags him straight into the clichéd heart of darkness: A generic Hollywood party scene that’s all cocaine, psychedelic music, and slow-motion shots of hippie girls dancing away the end of an era.
Steven Spielberg and George Lucas sit in the middle of it and spitball ideas for a movie about a robot shark that terrorizes a New England beach town, every dumb joke coming at the expense of the novel’s ruminative depth. Forget wide-eyed tangents about the voodoo of editing or possessed ramblings about the relationship between myth and anti-myth in American Westerns, because the “Zeroville” that screenwriters Paul Feltan and Ian Olds strip-mined from Erickson’s book is all surface. And it’s not even a convincing surface at that, but rather a mess of cheap gels and jaundiced lighting; at worst it looks like an insult to everything the source material held sacred, and at best it looks like the cast of a Judd Apatow movie dressed up as an episode of “You Must Remember This” for Halloween.
Anyway, that party is particularly fateful for Vikar because it’s where he first lays eyes on Soledad Paladin (Megan Fox), a beautiful actress who was supposedly cast as the woman who vanishes in “L’Avventura” before Antonioni changed his mind. There’s something funny about that, but “Zeroville” has no idea what it might be. Regardless, Vikar can’t shake the feeling that he’s seen her before, either in life or on screen. “Did I know you a long time ago?” he asks. Later, as the film drops any pretense of a deeper meaning and races through the novel’s major plot points in such a haphazard fashion that Erickson himself would struggle to follow it, the demented producer Rondell (played by a singing Will Ferrell, who presumably owed someone a favor) hires Vikar as an editor and tasks him with salvaging one of Soledad’s movies.
Our vexing hero loses himself in the process and become obsessed with the legend of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” which the director famously had to patch together from scraps after the negatives were lost in a fire. Unmoored by its lack of identity or purpose, “Zeroville” is sucked into the slipstream that it creates for itself, articulating the space between movies and madness just legibly enough to be dematerialized by that void. The flimsiness of the first half feels like a courtesy when compared to the dull ineptitude of the second, as “Zeroville” adopts Dotty’s motto (“fuck continuity!”) as a rallying cry and barrels into the ’70s with nothing but a few vague notions of cinema as a manifestation of the collective unconscious.
On the page, Erickson was able to flatten the distance between the film that Vikar is making and the ones in which he starts to see flashes of Soledad, but Franco isn’t able to repeat that trick on the screen; there’s nothing remotely in common between his chintzy footage and the clips he intercuts from the likes of Dreyer, Alejandro Jodorowsky, and Billy Wilder. Crudely splicing Fox into “The Holy Mountain” doesn’t suggest that the cinema is strung together by an endless thread so much as it proves how disconnected they can be — from each other, from themselves, and from any deeper purpose. As a book, “Zeroville” was a profound and intoxicating testament to the mythic power of images. As a movie, “Zeroville” is a compelling reminder to spend more time reading.
MyCinema will release “Zeroville” in theaters on Friday, September 20.