There’s a scene early in “Zeroville” where Seth Rogen, playing a thinly disguised movie-version of John Milius, trolls Ali MacGraw on the Paramount lot during the shoot for “Love Story.” Later, Milius (referred to as “Viking Man” in a likely effort to keep Milius’ lawyers at bay) takes the film’s main character to a beach party where fellow aspiring filmmakers named Stevie and Marty talk about their ideas for a killer shark movie or a New York cabbie story. These moments pepper “Zeroville” and often serve as the highlights to an otherwise inconsistent film that enjoys this “Forrest Gump”-esque historical dalliance with a Travis Bickle lead rather than a whimsical, well-meaning simpleton.
Weird but kinda interesting, right? James Franco seems to think so, for he both directs and stars in “Zeroville” as Vikar, a former seminarian who arrives in Hollywood circa 1969 with only the possessions he can carry and dreams of breaking into the film biz. At one point, Vikar explains to Viking Man that he hadn’t even seen a movie until his 20s, at which point he abandoned all other worldly pursuits, shaved his head, got a tattoo of Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift on it, and moved to Hollywood.
Once in La-La Land, Vikar gets a job building sets on the Paramount lot, where his quiet yet reverent attitude about all things cinema bring him into the orbit of Viking Man and seasoned editor Dotty (Jacki Weaver). Dotty worked on the cut for “A Place in the Sun,” the scene featured on Vikar’s head, and explains the art of editing to an enraptured Vikar: tickling a sense of pure cinematic authenticity inside of him. Films may be conceived on the set, she explains, but they are only born in the editing room, inspiring Vikar to learn the craft under Dotty’s tutelage.
“Zeroville” proceeds from here as a roughly decade-long exploration of Vikar’s navigation through the Hollywood system as an editor with a growing reputation for rescuing troubled projects. Along the way, he becomes enraptured with a B-movie starlet, Soledad (Megan Fox), who he tries to elevate any time he can get his hands on one of her prints. Thematically, this romance subplot feels like something of a distraction until the back half of “Zeroville” makes it clear that this is indeed the point, by which time the whole effort begins to fall apart.
The film is an adaptation of Steve Erickson’s novel of the same name, which got strong reviews as an exploration of Hollywood by a pure outsider whose experience acted as a sounding board for a particular era. It explored the ways that cinema loses its relevancy to the politics of the film industry, in this story’s case vis-a-vis the shifting power dynamic from the studio system to the filmmakers and then back again. And while elements of that run throughout Franco’s picture, it takes a backseat to the psychological journey of Vikar himself.
And this is where Franco’s position in front of the camera, rather than exclusively behind it, seems to get in the way. He clearly has a fascination with the mythical pull of “Hollywood” and the ways outsiders lust after it (“The Disaster Artist” is something of a cinematic thesis on this), but in committing himself to the Vikar character, Franco seems to have given too much of the movie over to him. Vikar’s running obsession with Soledad consumes the narrative thrust of the film during the second half of “Zeroville,” and muddies the waters of the thematic pool. Is this a film about cinema’s resilience and power to inspire and germinate never-ending generations of disciples, or one borderline-psychotic man’s journey to crack the Einstein-like code of cinema’s unifying film theory?
If that seems confusing and somewhat random, that’s okay: this review’s presentation of that last idea is no less abrupt than its presentation in the movie. As a character, Vikar also presents problems, for his brooding, quiet, bottled-up passion carries a nefarious slant to it (a-la Travis Bickle), keeping the audience’s guard up. There’s a life-or-death seriousness to him that keeps the fun moments (like Viking Man’s troubled shoot with Marlon Brando in the Philippines) in check and never really allows the audience to relish this stuff.
Franco seems to want to have his cake and eat it too with all of this, using the book’s wide-eyed optimism and history-dancing while delving into the darker aspects of Vikar’s personality to craft a complex character study. Indeed, you can’t really have a film where Will Ferrell is yucking it up with songs while the main character seems constantly on the verge of a full-blown psychotic break. Or at least Franco wasn’t able to do it, here, earnest as his attempt seems to be. Fun at times, but scattered and confused through most of it, “Zeroville” is an interesting entry in Franco’s running obsession with Hollywood and outsiders. Though it’s something of a miss, it’s certainly no zero, though. [C]