Zeroville: Stop me if you've heard this before, but Hollywood is a twisted place under the glamour

By Thom Ernst

Rating: C

There may be a resurgence of interest in the Hollywood of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s. There is plenty enough Sharon Tate, and Manson family sub-genre horror films for fans to stream. More visibly, there is Once Upon A Time in Hollywood.  

If there is, in fact, such a resurrection, then Zeroville is the latest by-product—or at least the most recently released. The film was completed in 2014, prior to James Franco’s truncated success with The Disaster Artist (a Golden Globe, but a crippling #metoo accusation before the Oscars). Financial problems left the movie without distribution. Five years later, myCinema comes along and saves Zeroville from obscurity—at least for now. 

James Franco is a Manson-era weirdo-visionalry preaching his Hollywood gospel to Megan Fox in Zeroland

James Franco is a Manson-era weirdo-visionalry preaching his Hollywood gospel to Megan Fox in Zeroland

Zeroville is directed by James Franco, who also stars in the movie as Vikar an odd addition to the Hollywood playfield of the ‘70s.  Vikar claims to be a seminary drop-out who, merely nine months prior to his arrival, saw his first film; A Place in the Sun

 If movies are a religion, then Vikar is cinema’s most recent convert. So devoted is he in spreading the gospel of a good picture that he has a scene from A Place in the Sun featuring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift, tattooed on the back of his head.  He meets a host of Hollywood types including a bombastic film producer (Will Ferrell) a pioneer film editor (Jacki Weaver who seems to be channeling the late Dede Allen), a mysterious and emotionally damaged ingenue (Megan Fox), and a gruff screenwriter (Seth Rogen).

 Vikar comes across as an unintentional amalgamation of other movie characters; he’s Travis Bickle on a holy mission, cocked and ready for violence, he’s Chauncey Gardner cluelessly spreading wisdom and virtue, and he’s Forrest Gump happening upon some of the most iconic and significant movie scenes in cinema history.

But for all its hallowed movie references, and despite the pride Zeroville takes in its weirdness, it just might be a movie too strange for its good.  I suspect the producers think so too, but decided to make the best of it by giving a full confession in a poster tagline that reads, “This is a weird movie.

The message is clear; this is a movie about Hollywood that is out to break the rules.  And break the rules it does, but only in ways that all films about Hollywood tend to break Hollywood’s rules; by exposing an underbelly of deceit, insincerity and corruption and hope that no one looks too closely in the wrong direction. 

The film entertains enough when toying with the temperaments of a few Hollywood elites. Spotting an exuberant Steven Spielberg outlining the plot of an upcoming killer shark movie while a young George Lucas argues the difference between an android and a robot, is fleetingly great fun.  

Zeroville lifts its story off the pages of author Steve Erickson’s best-seller of the same name. Like Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust and Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run?, Erickson’s book is quick to shave off the gleam from the Hollywood dream. That these books (and many more like them) have been made into films seems a testament that Hollywood wants everyone to know that they are not blind to the game they’re playing. 

Yes, Zeroville fulfills its promise to be a weird movie, it’s just not all that original.

Zeroville. Directed by James Franco from a novel by Steve Erickson. Starring James Franco, Megan Fox and Will Ferrell. Opens Friday at Scotiabank Theatre.