Film Review: ‘Zeroville’ is Not an Ode to Cinema, But a Eulogy to What Could Have Been

Steve Erickson’s literary masterpiece, “Zeroville” is a love letter to cinema. Beautifully written, and thought-provoking, the novel follows one man’s years-long love affair with the movies.

Sheltered his entire life, Ike Jerome is transformed when he experiences his first film, “A Place in the Sun.” Moved by the performances of Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift, Ike falls in love with the movies. Soon after, he shaves his head, tattooing his bare skin with the intimate image of Taylor and Clift. He leaves his Midwestern seminary, finding salvation in Los Angeles. As he becomes a disciple of Cinema, Ike renames himself Vikar. Making his way into Hollywood, Vikar climbs the ranks from a set builder to an award-winning editor. Erickson’s story is a lens to Vikar’s journey through an industry going through a transitioning Hollywood—one slowly evolving into a corporate machine. Taking place from 1969 to the early ‘80s, “Zeroville” is a cinematic odyssey, worthy of an equally riveting screen adaptation.

In 2014, James Franco’s film of the same name wrapped shooting. Unfortunately, “Zeroville” has been stuck in post-production hell for the better half of a decade. With a new distributor, after five long years, “Zeroville” is finally seeing the light of day. Indeed, the times have changed, and so will the reception of the long-awaited piece. The screen adaptation itself is meant to pay tribute to classic stars and the art of filmmaking, but “Zeroville” is a eulogy to what could have been. While cinema is a beautiful thing, the book’s adaptation is a sad reminder of the fickle industry that the medium has created.

The film follows the events of the book, introducing us to Vikar (James Franco) as he enters Hollywood. On his first industry job as a set builder, Vikar befriends editor Dottie Langer (Jackie Weaver). She takes Vikar under her wing and educates him on the industry. Later, he establishes himself as a “hip” young editor. Vikar’s talents take him across the world, and within the company of familiar stars of the ‘70s. However, Vikar’s sojourn in the movies is only a portion of a bigger picture. At least, that’s what the film wants us to believe.

Image result for zeroville movie

The “Zeroville” novel spans more than a decade, but the movie condenses Vikar’s odyssey to an hour and a half. The scenes are chopped and screwed, seemingly pieced together with scraps. This leads to rushed pacing that is entirely uneven. The narrative is disjointed and confusing at times. It jumps from scene to scene, with no real indication of how much time has passed. For a film that reveres the importance of editing, editing is “Zeroville’s” most fatal flaw. During a particular scene transition (Where Vikar meets Soledad), the film looks as if it skips, but the frame merely freezes for a few seconds, then uses a superimposed shot of the beach. Bruce Thierry Cheung’s cinematography is stunning, but it’s butchered by haphazard editing. To take a quote from the film, “Zeroville” says “F*** CONTINUITY!”

Unfortunately, it doesn’t succeed in its intentions.

The performances in “Zeroville” are good, but they aren’t a stretch for any of the actors, most of which are frequent Franco collaborators. Seth Rogen, Danny McBride, Will Ferrell, Craig Robinson, and even Dave Franco make appearances. For the most part, they are entertaining, but their roles aren’t anything audiences haven’t seen before. The talent in “Zeroville” is immense, but the short runtime is unable to utilize them to the best of their abilities. Each actor works with what they’re given despite diminished roles from a clunky script. While the novel has its comedic bits, “Zeroville” has trouble balancing comedy with the story’s more somber moments. At first it wants to be a traditional buddy comedy, then veers into a contemplative look at life and loss.

Megan Fox in Zeroville (2019)

As Soledad (Vikar’s love interest), Megan Fox is alluring, but her character exists as a mystical creature. Similar to Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor, Soledad becomes more of a symbol. Beautiful yet tragic, the actress represents how the industry destroys young souls, especially women. The narrative laments Soledad’s treatment as a piece of eye candy, but “Zeroville” doesn’t seem to be aware that it treats the actress that plays her the same way. Throughout the 90 minutes, we’re barely given a chance to get to know her. She purely exists as the object of Vikar’s obsession, her beauty constantly on display. It’s evident that Soledad is imperfect, but her depression and demise are romanticized. In a role that was initially perfect for Fox, she could have had more time to shine as an actress. Soledad’s contributions to Vikar’s story are so much more than the film lets on. Jackie Weaver, and Joey King are also great in their brief screen time, but their roles, like Fox’s are played down.

Franco proved himself to be an adept director with the critically acclaimed “The Disaster Artist.” “Zeroville” was filmed the year prior, yet the love and care behind the two features couldn’t be more different. “Zeroville’s” mishaps aren’t Franco’s alone to bear, but a piece of work that defines cinema itself deserved a better treatment. In another timeline, this piece could have been the big awards contender that “The Disaster Artist” turned out to be. Unfortunately, “Zeroville” didn’t quite have the backing behind it that the story of “The Room” did. “The Disaster Artist” is also an ode to Hollywood, but it’s a more digestible story for mainstream audiences. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why “Zeroville” fell through the cracks.

I’m uncertain of what happened over the last five years, but you can’t tell me that this is the intended final product. Destroyed by bankruptcy, editing, and a loss of interest in the project, “Zeroville” is not the adaptation it was meant to be. Surely Franco planned more for his feature. No one intends to let their work get eviscerated. As someone who found a lot of joy in the films of the Franco-Rogen clan over the years, I wanted to love this entry, but couldn’t.

“Zeroville” could have been several things: A great directorial effort, the adaptation that Steve Erickson’s novel deserves, a worthy tribute to Montgomery Clift, and most importantly, a transformative role for Megan Fox. With the right situation, during the right time, and made by the correct hands, “Zeroville” could have been a cinematic triumph. Instead, the finished film is a byproduct of a time long gone, a time in the fictional world of Vikar, and in real life.

“Zeroville” is distributed by MyCinema and will have a limited release on September 20.

GRADE: (★)

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