One of the industry’s longest-standing in-jokes has been turned into one of its more elaborate home movies in “An Alan Smithee Film — Burn, Hollywood, Burn,” a caustic but under-funny “expose” of the venality of the motion picture business. Main source of interest lies in the stunt appearances of numerous stars and personalities as themselves, as well as in the extraordinary irony of a film about the ousting of a director from his project actually having been disowned by its helmer. But docu-like structure and extreme insider nature mitigate general audience appeal, and heavy-handed humor brands this as only a curiosity even for buffs. Pic world preemed Thursday night at the Mill Valley Film Festival, and is being held back by Buena Vista until next spring, when it will go out on a limited basis in top markets, where it will quickly exhaust its potential audience base on its way to a more prosperous life on cable and video.
There has been no doubt throughout the history of “Alan Smithee” that Joe Eszterhas was the true auteur of this would-be defense of film directors’ rights. But the credits were supposed to read, “Directed by Arthur Hiller,” until a dispute over the cutting led the veteran director to take his name off the picture, thereby triggering the all-purpose pseudonym Alan Smithee, the name used by the Directors Guild of America when a filmmaker wants to decline credit.
The Smithee name has popped up on more than 30 films in as many years, sparking a mini-industry in academia centering on “The Films of Alan Smithee” (his credits range from everything from the not-bad “Death of a Gunfighter” and the long TV version of David Lynch’s “Dune” to something called “Bloodsucking Pharaohs in Pittsburgh”). Overall, new effort is extremely consistent with the Smithee oeuvre to date.
Eszterhas obviously considered all this a wonderful jumping-off point for a study of the emasculation of artistic ambition in Hollywood, but watching the resulting film is the equivalent of having your ribs poked for an hour and a half by a prankster most of whose jokes are funny only to himself.
Beginning with some confidential remarks from Sylvester Stallone, pic gets under way with heavy exposition, all told straight to camera, documentary-style, by many of the participants.
The cut negative of a $212 million action extravaganza called “Trio,” starring Stallone, Whoopi Goldberg and Jackie Chan, produced by blowhard producer James Edmunds (Ryan O’Neal) and backed by spineless studio exec Jerry Glover (Richard Jeni), has been stolen and destroyed by its director, Smithee (Eric Idle), after the film was taken away from him by Edmunds.
With Smithee now interned in the Keith Moon Psychiatric Institute in his native England, what is promised is an “autopsy” of the film, to demonstrate how such a promising blockbuster could go so wrong.
As-told-to format is logical enough for the setup, but one waits for the action to switch into dramatized narrative at some point. Unfortunately, it never really does, and the docu-like approach, in which things are described and explained more often than they are shown, quickly becomes tiresome and prevents the picture from developing a rhythm and sense of timing of its own.
Along the way, it’s revealed that Smithee, a veteran film editor, was hired because he was considered a “controllable” director by the scheming Edmunds. Once the film is stolen, five days before its release date, gruff detective Sam Rizzo (Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein) is put on the case, while Smithee makes the unlikely move of recruiting cutting-edge black filmmakers the Brothers Brothers (Coolio and Chuck D) to serve as intimidating intermediaries between him and the studio in his quest for final cut.
But Smithee ends up burning the film anyway, paving the way for a supremely cynical, even if rather believable, third act in which all parties put the best possible spin on the disastrous turn of events so that everyone, even the reviled Smithee himself, can come out of the situation better than ever.
Nearly every scene is a snippet existing for the sake of one arcane point, or even a one-liner, usually a lame one. Eszterhas disposes of the writer’s role on “Trio” right off the bat, with action screenwriter Shane Black shrugging his shoulders about how he was heavily rewritten but made a ton of money anyway, and a critic named Sheila Caslin shown having been co-opted into the writing process.
Film teems with minor in-jokes, few of which will mean anything to people outside Hollywood: An agent played by Gavin Polone saunters out of Drai’s and coolly assesses the ongoing situation; an actress (Leslie Stefanson), done up to resemble Eszterhas heroine Sharon Stone, is asked to seduce Smithee and describes him as “not a Jack or Warren kind of guy”; Japanese auditors sit in on the studio’s negotiations with the Brothers Brothers; Robert Shapiro and Dominick Dunne turn up, the latter to rail about how he wanted a spectacular trial for Smithee; vet producer Robert Evans, who competes with Edmunds for the rights to Smithee’s life story, appears with a succession of cute young things, insisting that they call him “Daddy”; and Smithee, asked how bad “Trio” really is, responds that “it’s worse than ‘Showgirls.’ ”
Most startling of these gags, however, is an end-credits shot of Eszterhas and Arthur Hiller having a meal, with the latter asking the scribe, “Why would you want me to direct?” We don’t hear Eszterhas’ answer.
The best one can say for the film is that it does rather effectively and accurately nail the sort of self-justifying, rationalizing, smug and arrogant posturing that is not hard to find among Hollywood’s power class; Eszterhas unquestionably knows whereof he speaks, and it is admittedly unusual to see a sendup of the elite so thoroughly created by members of the club.
But it becomes obvious well before the end that there wasn’t really a movie here after all, at least not one that will be terribly edifying for general audiences. The actors are hamstrung by having few fleshed-out scenes to perform, but standup comic Jeni quite nicely catches the weakness of a man without a mind of his own who somehow ended up running a studio.
Production values are routine, with many sequences having been shot at familiar industry hangouts.