All things considered, March 2011 was a pretty good month for James Franco. Years before the unseemly scandals that have since marred his career, he enjoyed the level of industry cachet befitting a young talent coming off their first Oscar nomination (even if they’d really bit the big one in their capacity as co-host). Perhaps Franco was feeling creatively emboldened by recent dabbling in novels and multimedia when he decided to take on a new challenge in his fledgling vocation of directing. Franco purchased the rights to Zeroville, an acclaimed and reputedly dense novel wending a noir-influenced path through New Hollywood, with the intention of making his most ambitious feature film yet.
He would tackle a few more high-minded literary adaptations – Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God, William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying as well as The Sound and the Fury – before stepping up to the plate to begin principal photography in 2014. Assembling a cast of his most trusted friends and collaborators, a star-studded lineup including Seth Rogen, Will Ferrell, Danny McBride, Megan Fox, and his dear brother Dave, he completed what must have felt at the time like something close to a masterpiece. The receptions to Franco’s directorial efforts had historically been mixed, but this would establish him as a name to be taken seriously beyond all measure of a doubt.
Five years and several personal and professional calamities later, Franco’s Zeroville made its theatrical debut – on one screen in one theater in New York. This critic attended the 5pm showtime on opening day at the Cinepolis Chelsea, which stopped showing the film after a few sparsely attended days. Nobody else showed up to that screening, and though two theaters in Los Angeles continue to run the latest film du Franco, it looks like just about everyone will miss what has to be the single worst film of the year.
Franco’s would-be magnum opus spent the last-half decade floating around in limbo, due in part to the original distributor Alchemy filing for bankruptcy in 2016, and due in part because nobody else wanted to adopt this orphaned bomb once it was up for grabs again. It was re-purchased in April of 2019 by myCinema, a small Swiss outfit established last year, and ignominiously shuffled through a grand total of three theaters before being put out to pasture. It’s an unceremonious fate for what may have at one point resembled the proper arrival of a new major auteur, and yet utterly deserved for a work of such staggering incompetence.
Franco pairs his A-lister resources with a sub-undergraduate mastery of the form for a work of rarefied and powerful badness, in which a bustling recreation of anything-goes Tinseltown turns into a playset for Franco’s juvenile, experimental monkeying-around. He portrays a man known as Vikar, a cipher of an architect (he’s really a carpenter, like Jesus Christ, in the sort of wispy thematic connection this film tends to favor) new to Los Angeles, with no background or memory or any interiority whatsoever save his scalp tattoo of Montgomery Clift and Liz Taylor taken from A Place in the Sun. Whenever anyone remarks on it, he sullenly mumbles, “I believe it is a very good movie.” Research into Steve Erickson’s original text reveals that the character is supposed to be borderline autistic, a notion that Franco’s performance engages with for the most part unwittingly, like a dysfunctional comedy film funny for all the wrong reasons.
Vikar falls in with a colorful coterie of stand-ins for real-life figures as well as party-entertainment-quality impersonators of the actual big names, both of which enable Franco to show off an entry-level cinephilia unimpressive to anyone who’s ever uttered the words “movie buff”. Vikar stumbles into a swinging house party where a gaggle of famous film-makers sit in a circle and discuss their upcoming works of genius. Steven Spielberg wants to make a movie about a shark! Could he be referring to Jaws? Later, Franco sticks Rogen’s blowhard screenwriter character (based on John Milius) in the background of the Apocalypse Now set, where the guy can reaffirm the mythology of unchecked insanity in the jungle for the umpteenth time. Erickson’s novel revolved around the effort to look through movie obsession to find the fragile pathology that undergirds it; Franco’s adaptation feels much comfier basking in what it’s supposed to be picking apart.
The vaguest semblance of a plot leads Vikar down a cinematic rabbithole, to discover what he inelegantly refers to as “a movie hidden within all other movies”. The garbled investigation acquaints him with an irate producer (played by Will Ferrell, in one scene doing an unforgettably awful rendition of the Miracles’ Mickey’s Monkey), a starlet named Soledad Paladin (Megan Fox; her character’s desire to be taken more seriously than her good looks will allow being the film’s only substantive bit of metatext), and her daughter Zazi (a then 15-year-old Joey King). By the time the second act lurches into gear and Vikar takes Zazi into his care, it all starts to have the stomach-churning feeling of a pretense for Franco to shoot himself tending to an underage girl. In light of the accusations that he had been sending lascivious online messages to a real-world teenager, the images leave an unsavory taste even in this fictive context.
All of which is to say nothing of the more pedestrian strains of ineptitude that render long parts of the film postmodern gibberish. Vikar learns the subtle art of film editing from a Margaret Booth avatar played by Franco regular Jacki Weaver, who teaches him to “fuck continuity” in pursuit of subjective emotional truth. One may safely assume Franco adopted that maxim during post-production, as an all-purpose defense for an incoherence running rampant from cut to cut. Within these disjointed scenes, actors indulge in what can only be described as “acting” with great generosity, visibly lost and confused and unsure about who they are or what they’re supposed to be doing. They’re all doing what they can to stay on top of the gummy dialogue they’ve been dealt; Craig Robinson pops up as a burglar robbing Vikar, but stops after getting distracted by a TV playing My Darling Clementine. He then launches into a soliloquy about the greatness of John Ford, the sort of tangent that a freshman film seminar’s professor would try to gently rein in.
For many years, Zeroville had the reputation of being one of those allegedly “unfilmable” novels, owing to its densely allusive nature and unorthodox structuring and occasional flights of surrealist fancy. Franco proved them all wrong, in keeping with a preoccupation over artists undertaking quixotic and possibly ill-advised projects that spans his oeuvre and motivated his greatest success The Disaster Artist. He’s got 96 minutes of proof that for a director willing to take risks and delve into his own pseudo-academic philosophies of mass entertainment, there’s no such thing as an “unfilmable” book – just an unwatchable movie.