Franco’s awkwardly incomprehensible film offers, at its best, little more than a dime-store Tarantino knockoff, while its worst moments aren’t really all that far from the inept self-indulgence of Tommy Wiseau.
One needs to look no further than Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood to see that Tinseltown’s sometimes unseemly obsession with itself can still lead to impressive cinematic achievement. But this tendency toward self-adulation can also result in the kind of masturbatory drivel found in James Franco’s Zeroville, a nonsensical fever-dream ostensibly about heralding the uniquely transcendent power of film, but one that instead makes movies seem like a stultifying waste of time.
Opening in 1969 with Franco’s opaquely sketched cinephile, Vikar, being briefly grilled as a suspect in the murder of Sharon Tate, Franco’s awkwardly incomprehensible film offers, at its best, little more than a dime-store Tarantino knockoff, while its worst moments aren’t really all that far from the inept self-indulgence of Tommy Wiseau. Ex-seminarian Vikar arrives in transitional, late-‘60s Hollywood already worshiping at the feet of silver screen classics like Sunset Boulevard. To drive home the intensity of his zealotry for the medium, Vikar’s got a garish tattoo of Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor from A Place in the Sun tattooed onto the back of his shaved head.
As Zeroville charts a vaguely surreal, nonlinear path through the ‘70s, Vikar is taken under the wing of Dotty (Jacki Weaver), who teaches him how to edit film. This leads to his eventual ascension to filmmaking fame. Their editing motto, “Fuck continuity,” is meant to reflect a brash, convention-bucking attitude toward their craft, which champions atmosphere over accuracy. But lack of continuity is an albatross around the neck of Franco’s style here, where he shows little to no effort to make his one-dimensional characters behave in consistent, believable or meaningful ways. As the years float by in a neon-lit haze, Vikar crosses paths with a swaggering screenwriter (Seth Rogen), a boorish executive (Will Ferrell) and a bombshell actress named Soledad (Megan Fox), who dreams of serious roles that will never come. All these characters simply act in service of the contrived notion of Hollywood as both beauty and beast, and Franco seems misguidedly obsessed with the idea that the creative purity of rogue talent should be rightly rewarded by the mainstream.
Zeroville is as tonally confused as its protagonist is rigidly certain of cinema’s inherent power. At times, the movie borders on farce, but Franco’s earnest handling of the material—both from behind the camera and in playing Vikar, who woodenly appears in nearly every scene—belies much opportunity for comedy. One exception is a pair of scenes with Craig Robinson as an affable burglar and classic movie buff who really just wants to hang out. But even those brief moments of levity are few and far between.
Franco remains content to coast along on the idea that proximity to greatness is itself noteworthy. Vikar crosses paths with the filmmakers of Apocalypse Now (with Horatio Sanz briefly portraying Francis Ford Coppola). He also makes the perplexing decision to splice in lengthy scenes directly from David Lynch’s masterfully subversive Eraserhead, a move which feel wholly unearned and acts as simply another demonstration of Franco’s ability to acquire the rights to play around with the work of icons. His attempts to capture the punk ethos of the film’s source material, Steve Erickson’s novel of the same name, come off as completely ham-fisted, and he goes so far as to give us two separate live performances of the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” One portrays a curiously shadow-shrouded young Iggy Pop vamping onstage at CBGB (lest Los Angeles get all the show biz adoration) and the other features Soledad’s teenage daughter, Zazi (Joey King), covering the song while preposterously moving Vikar to tears.
Made in 2014, Franco’s film languished in distribution hell for years. Given the shoddiness of this project—yet another ineffective literary adaptation on his resume—the long delay in securing support comes as little surprise. In alternately worshiping Hollywood and defying its convention, the film is embarrassing in its misplaced sincerity. The timing of its release works against it, with the film’s thematic similarities to Tarantino’s own love letter to the era only making it pale in comparison. Sure, it’s got an impressive cast filled with Franco’s famous friends—Gus Van Sant even appears in a cameo to provide historical trivia about The Passion of Joan of Arc. And it indulges in clips from famous films and includes many songs from famous bands, all while cloaked in a kaleidoscopic blur that hearkens to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. But while Franco may desperately and insufferably grasp for profundity, Zeroville doesn’t add up to much.