For all the high-minded talk from its high-profile producers around “Project Greenlight,” the TV show has never been about the movies being made at its center, nor has it produced a successful one. That streak continues with “The Leisure Class,” although this latest film has been spared any commercial pressures by premiering on HBO, which needn’t worry about anyone specifically paying to see it, something that — in the rough-and-tumble world of theatrical distribution — one suspects almost nobody would feel inclined to do.
As the series chronicled, contest-winning director Jason Mann fought to make this script, and there’s obviously some talent on display here. That said, it’s put to use in the service of such a small, inconsequential story as to make Mann’s conspicuous hand-wringing over the details during the show — like shooting on film as opposed to digital — seem irrelevant in hindsight.
Having initially set out to make a comedy, the producers bowed to Mann’s darker vision, yielding something closer to a satire. But the targets aren’t particularly distinctive, and the notion of the entire narrative unfolding over a 24-hour period, as executed, makes for a rather blunt, heavy-handed approach.
The film opens with William (Ed Weeks) about to marry Fiona (“Jane the Virgin’s” Bridget Regan), the politically ambitious daughter of a filthy-rich U.S. senator, Edward Langston (Bruce Davison, the best thing the movie has going for it). At an engagement shindig the night before the wedding, Edward works the crowd, while telling William that he’s “like the son I never had.”
The inevitable grenade arrives in the form of William’s long-lost brother, Leonard (Tom Bell), the loosest of cannons, who risks exposing his sibling as a grifter who, before genuinely falling for Fiona, was preparing to loot the senator’s charitable foundation. Yet Leonard’s wild and irreverent behavior (William tries passing him off as an old college friend) not only endangers his brother’s plans, but quickly punctures the family’s veneer of perfection, although given the tumble of details that emerges, it never really adds up to much more than a flesh wound.
Weeks and Bell yield a few amusing moments with rat-a-tat banter and wordplay, as William seeks to politely oust his brother, who proceeds to gulp down a lot of expensive booze before all heck breaks loose, offering Davison an opportunity to lose his cool. But none of it really holds up to close scrutiny, such as the notion that the senator wouldn’t disclose results of a background check on his future son-in-law until the night before the wedding. Nor is there enough meat or focus here for the film to function as a critique of the one percent, the title and trappings notwithstanding.
In perhaps the savviest move associated with this revival of the concept, HBO scheduled the movie to play the night after “Project Greenlight’s” final episode, allowing the morbidly curious to see how the snippets they’ve seen have been cut together. But if the network’s executives have given this modestly budgeted exercise 10 minutes thought — other than wondering how they looked on camera — it’s about nine too many.
The underlying goal of “Project Greenlight” has always been to demonstrate that while Hollywood represents a fantasy factory, the nuts and bolts of making movies isn’t all fun and games. While that ode to the hard work of filmmaking is a reasonable (if self-serving) objective, as chores go, watching the finished product shouldn’t be.