I’m tired of hearing how some novels are “impossible to adapt.” Balderdash! Just because some books don’t lend themselves to being translated from page to screen doesn’t mean that the attempt ought not to be made. Just ask James Franco, who’s shown a speed freak’s determination to tackle some of the unlikeliest literary adaptations of the last decade, from William Faulkner (“As I Lay Dying,” “The Sound and the Fury”) to John Steinbeck (“In Dubious Battle”) to Cormac McCarthy (“Child of God”). Frankly, he’s not very good at it, but that doesn’t stop him. Nor should it. Even Franco’s failures are fascinating, like asymmetrical pottery-wheel mishaps that wouldn’t pass for a vase, but wind up looking like modern art.
From the moment of its publication in 2007, Steve Erickson’s postmodern showbiz satire “Zeroville” was widely described as “unfilmable” — which was like waving a red flag in front of Franco. Truth be told, “Zeroville” was practically begging to be turned into a movie, and even though the result is a mess, something interesting should have come from it. The main character, Vikar, is singularly obsessed with cinema, so much so that he has the faces of Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor from “A Place in the Sun” tattooed across his bald scalp. He heads straight from seminary school to Hollywood, works his way up from set builder to film editor, falls for a cult-film siren and discovers “a secret movie hidden in all the movies ever made.”
As Erickson describes him, Vikar sounds like a cross between Chauncey Gardiner (slow, soft-spoken, inadvertently revolutionary) and Ignatius Riley (the blowhard hero of his own life story) — the sort of larger-than-life, dumb-luck lummox who could easily sustain his own movie. Only, Franco was the wrong person to play him. A guy like him shows up in Los Angeles, and they put him in the pictures. Vikar, on the other hand, is kind of a freak, a virginal, naive, socially awkward outsider who somehow cracks the industry’s secret code, bearing silent witness to the decade that transformed Hollywood before discovering the arcane way in which everything connects.
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“Zeroville” begins on the same day that Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” ends — which is to say, in the immediate aftermath of the Manson family murders — except in Erickson’s universe, Vikar rolls into Los Angeles just as the crimes are being discovered and, because of his suspicious appearance, is picked up and interrogated by cops (in those days, as in these, only bikers and yahoos would’ve gotten a full-skull tattoo). One of the officers mistakes the image for “Rebel Without a Cause,” which infuriates Vikar. When Vikar gets angry, he wants to jam a pair of sharpened pencils into the offending party’s ears. And when he sees something he likes, limited exclusively to films, he dully announces, “I believe it’s a very good movie.”
What ought to have felt like a less-druggy, more coherent version of Dennis Hopper’s “The Last Movie” — or a variation on Orson Welles’ long-lost late-’60s art-film parody “The Other Side of the Wind,” recently salvaged by Netflix — instead comes off as a virtually incomprehensible meta-movie pastiche. “Zeroville,” whose title is a reference to Jean-Luc Godard, amounts to a haphazard jumble of wink-wink self-awareness, mescaline-fueled meaning-of-life nonsense and easy-target 1970s film industry references (Seth Rogen plays a character inspired by John Milius, who berates fledgling film nerds Lucas and Spielberg, geeking out at a party, by saying, “You two can’t make movies together anymore!”).
Five years ago, shortly after “This Is the End,” Franco enlisted a bunch of his buddies (Rogen, Danny McBride, Craig Robinson) and went gonzo on the project, popping up on studio backlots and even on the red carpet of the Venice Film Festival, where he was receiving a prize, both in character and for real. As unfilmable novels go, “Zeroville” was underway, and there seemed to be nothing stopping him from shooting this one. And then the movie sort of disappeared, finally limping its way into U.S. theaters the Friday before it plays the San Sebastian Film Festival.
What to make of the result? As with many of Franco’s projects, it seems to have left the station without a script, with the result that entire segments feel half-baked and semi-improvised (Will Ferrell pops up as an old-school studio head who thinks he’s entitled to seduce his beautiful but disposable starlet, Soledad, played by Megan Fox). In other places, scenes are lifted directly from Erickson’s novel, absurdist patches in the decade-spanning crazy-quilt of a story, as when a movie-loving burglar (Robinson) breaks into Vikar’s apartment, but instead of stealing anything, sticks around to watch “Sunset Boulevard” in its entirety. Eleven years later, these two cinephiles are reunited in an alley, and only then do we realize how much time has elapsed.
Whether by limitations of budget or design, the movie fails to convey the passage of time, finding significance in both the late ’60s (the birth of the New Hollywood) and the early ’80s (with its punk rock revolution). And yet, there’s almost no excuse for its biggest failing: In the book, Vikar makes his mark as a film editor, apprenticing under an old rummy named Dotty (Jacki Weaver), loosely inspired by “Jaws” editor Verna Fields, whose mantra is, “F–k continuity!” Sure, but if you’re going to be bold, be interesting, at least.
Vikar learns the craft over the course of a garish montage, all split-screens and attention-grabbing splices, but there’s little evidence that he’s become the avant-garde editing genius worthy of receiving a special prize in Venice. (It was Cannes in the book, which pulls a stunt where the chapters abruptly stop their ascent around this time, counting down from 227 when Vikar returns to Los Angeles, views Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Le Samouraï” and shifts his attention to the mystery of the secret message hidden in all the films he’s been seeing.)
Between Vikar’s profession and the movie’s trippy subtext, “Zeroville” would seem to call for some genuinely experimental editing. As Vikar discovers, destroying the idea of cause and effect, “All the scenes of a movie are really happening at the same time … because all scenes anticipate and reflect each other.” Franco has a truly radical streak in him, and considering how poorly the movie functions as a traditional crowd-pleaser, he might as well have gone all out and pushed “Zeroville” to whatever event horizon the deranged project called for. His mistake wasn’t in trying to adapt Erickson’s novel at all, but in attempting to turn it into a tragic romance between Vikar and Soledad. The borderline-autistic character loves to say, “I believe it’s a very good movie,” but in this case, it most decidedly isn’t.