“Zeroville” is a surreal fantasia on Hollywood filmed in 2014, in limbo when its distributor went bankrupt in 2016.
Based on a Steve Erikson novel, it has morphed, on the shelf, into a veritable James Franco time capsule, a movie about “the secret movie within ALL movies” and the ultimate “Hollywood ending.” It presents an alternate 2019 for its director and star, a perfect representation of who he was five years ago.
Try to recall a time before “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood,” because this film begins in exactly the same year, with a young aspiring set-builder (Franco) arriving just after the same Sharon Tate/Manson family murders that Tarantino’s summer blockbuster toyed around with.
And remember the films, the adventurously eclectic career that Franco, now 41, was pursuing before his sordid and destructive #MetToo history blew up his 2018 Oscar shot (for “The Disaster Artist”) and stopped his rise to the top.
This is just the sort of film he was making back then. He’d round up friends from his posse — Seth Rogen, Craig Robinson, brother Dave Franco and Danny McBride among them — direct and sometimes star in quirky, offbeat movies that rarely made much noise and sometimes showed great promise, at others made you laugh at the pretentions of the would-be poet/novelist/playwright/screenwriter, director and actor.
The ambitions of “Zeroville” are modest. A fitfully amusing/deliberately obscure movie about the movies made a nice dry run for “The Disaster Artist,” but there’s not enough here to make it “essential” or even easy to sit through.
Coming out after “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” and “The Disaster Artist” doesn’t help.
And neither does noting that one of Franco’s co-stars was a then quite-young Joey King, before her reinvention as a Netflix teen sexpot. Enough people come out and call you a manipulative, predatory creeper of teenagers — including your own admissions in print — and the viewer can be excused for fretting over what went on off the set.
Franco stars as Vikar, whom we see shave his head and get his scalp tattooed with an image of Liz Taylor and Montgomery Clift in “A Place in the Sun.” Sure, it’s 1969 and nobody was doing that then, but roll with it.
Vikar shows up in Hollywood a proverbial naif. Yes, he’s older than anybody who’s this naive should be. But he has an excuse. He was in seminary, studying church architecture. He’d never seen a movie until recently, and that first film, starring Liz Taylor and Monty Clift, changed his life.
He’s landed a job building sets, but he quickly reveals himself to have odd ideas and obsessions about films that go beyond the script, envisioning scenes that happen “23 years after” the events in the movie he’s supposedly designing and constructing.
A chance encounter with a jaded, older film editor (Jacki Weaver) convinces him to change careers. Meeting a loony, macho, gun-crazy screenwriter (Seth Rogen) imbeds him even deeper in the business. Glimpsing a struggling, older starlet at a party (Megan Fox) leads to a new obsession.
And over the next eleven years, his star rises even as his bizarre beliefs about what’s really going on when the lights go down make him come off as a tad psychotic — which in Hollywood, then and now, is not a deal breaker.
The most delightful scenes in “Zeroville” are built around Rogen playing a gonzo version of “Apocalypse Now” screenwriter and “Red Dawn” director and co-writer John Milius, infamous as a surfing right wing Hollywood gun-nut with an unfiltered mouth.
Rogen bellowing abuse at a young George Lucas and his “not robots, ‘droids'” and at young Spielberg who has “this great idea about a great white shark that terrorizes a town!” and at Lucas AND Spielberg (just called “George” and “Steven”) for saying “Think ROBOTIC shark” is a movie-lover’s hoot that is not to be missed.
We meet “John” as he hurls derision at Ali McGraw for blowing her lines on the set of “Love Story,” which is the first movie Vikar sees in production upon his arrival.
Will Ferrell plays a hilariously delusional producer Vikar finds himself at odds with as he edits/saves the dope’s picture. Producer Rondell’s delusions extend to his singing abilities, which he’s not shy about sharing at wrap parties. “The Tracks of My Tears” may never recover.
A common conceit of movies about Hollywood is how nearly everybody there is a cineaste, a classic cinema buff — even the guy (Craig Robinson) burgling your hotel room.
Versions of Marlon Brando and Coppola (Horatio Sanz) bickering on the set of “Apocalypse Now” and punk rocker Iggy Pop on the stage at late ’70s CBGB’s also add texture to a film which marries the whirlwind “rise to the top in Hollywood” tale to the bizarre stuff Vikar picks up when he sees “The Passion of Joan of Arc” or “Sunset Boulevard” or “The Holy Mountain.”
Vikar’s post-Manson murders grilling at the hands of LA detectives (Danny McBride is one of them) opens the film on the wrong foot. Yeah, the tattoo got their attention.
Scoring the opening credits with The Animals’ “It’s My Life and I’ll Do What I Want” for a movie directed by and starring a guy with Franco’s baggage is Woody Allen-level creepy.
And Franco’s sullen, scowling version of “an intellectual on a mission” is closer to Tommy Wiseau’s acting efforts than his own best work — playing Tommy Wiseau in “The Disaster Artist.”
The whole Fox as femme fatale storyline is poorly conceived and flatly acted. She can be better than this, but not often.
Whatever its virtues, the film comes together more adroitly than satisfyingly.
Think of “Zeroville” as an artifact, worth looking at as a piece of pre-history that cannot — at present — shed its baggage, and frankly didn’t need that off-screen baggage to be a bust.
MPAA Rating: R for language throughout, some sexual content/nudity and brief drug use
Cast: James Franco, Megan Fox, Joey King, Seth Rogen, Will Ferrell, Danny McBride, Craig Robinson and Jacki Weaver
Credits: Directed by James Franco, script by Ian Olds and Paul Felten, based on a Steve Erikson novel. A MyCinema release.
Running time: 1:34