Sundance Movie Review: INTERIOR. LEATHER BAR.

40 minutes were cut from William Friedkin's CRUISING to placate censors. James Franco and pals work together to recreate those 40 minutes. Except not really. 

Here's the conceit, and it's not a bad one. In William Friedkin's 1980 film Cruising, in which Al Pacino plays a detective going undercover at a gay S&M bar to investigate a serial killer, forty minutes of explicit footage were cut from the film to achieve an R rating. These forty minutes have never screened publicly. James Franco paired up with filmmaker Travis Mathews to recreate what they imagine those forty minutes entailed.

While a little overly self-conscious and gimmicky, I like the idea of that film. I like that it explores the way our boundaries change over time. I think it's interesting that Mathews, a filmmaker whose previous works focus on gay intimacy, should attempt to reimagine a film steeped in homophobic controversy. I think it's fascinating that James Franco, soon to be starring in a massive Disney production, should participate. The concept sounds daring, imaginative, uninhibited. 

Interior. Leather Bar. is not that movie. 

Interior. Leather Bar. is sixty minutes long, fifty of which consist of Franco and friends dithering over the gay sex we're supposedly going to see. It's worth noting how much conversation they can fit into one hour. They talk and they talk and they talk, all toward nothing. Franco comes off badly in the film. He disappears for hours onset. When he does deign to show up and offer his performers some direction, he gives smirky half-answers while playing around on his phone. I think Franco's a smart guy and I think he had good intentions with this film, but I also think he didn't give a damn when it came to the execution of those intentions. He reminds us that violence in films is rarely subjected to the censorship sex suffers every day. Sex is natural! Violence is bad! We're not hearing anything new here.

Franco and Mathews' friend Val Lauren plays Steve, the character made famous by Pacino. Val is straight, he hastens to assure us. He is uncomfortable with this role. He doesn't like the idea of the project and he's only participating because he trusts Franco. (He shouldn't.) He's distressed by the gay playacting he sees onset, as a bottom licks boots and gets paddled. Conversations between Val and Franco, Val and Mathews, Val and extras onset last up to ten minutes, a sixth of the running time, as Val frets over the sexual extremes he thinks this film will reach. 

He needn't have worried. 

The story of Val could be a compelling one. He's a macho actor (Pacino is his role model), happily married to a cool gal who teases him about buying a strap-on for their next night together. ("Shut up," he interrupts her. "Don't be stupid.") At the beginning of this project, he's awkward and defensive. He hates the phony S&M garbage surrounding him onset, and frankly, I do too. It feels phony, which makes it weak. 

However, when the time comes to film an actual sex scene between two men who are partners in real life, Interior. Leather Bar. becomes briefly interesting. They share a wonderfully intimate scene, everyone shuts up for a second and Val stops chewing the inside of his cheek and looking like he's about to ralph. Later, he tells the couple that he thought their scene was beautiful and it's clear they're really in love. Val learns something important that day. He learns to examine his own boundaries and to negotiate them for the good of the production and his own personal growth. 

Unfortunately, Interior. Leather Bar. isn't really that movie, either. Throughout the film, we witness Val reading his cues off a script. Not his character Steve's cues, mind you. Val's. Val sits in a parking lot, script in his lap. He reads to himself the following words: "Val sits in a parking lot, script in his lap. He reads to himself." As Interior. Leather Bar. makes wild attempts to defy categorization as a narrative, a documentary or a porno, it undermines itself at every turn. 

Interior. Leather Bar. feels like it never has the guts to do what it set out to do. Where are those forty minutes of footage? If we're exploring boundaries here, why is this movie all talk and no action? If the boundaries meant to be explored are Val's, why does Interior. Leather Bar. make the effort to establish that even Val's discomfort could be scripted? The only parameters challenged in Interior. Leather Bar. are the parameters of what defines a narrative, and that appears entirely incidental. 

Of all of the missed opportunities in Interior. Leather Bar. - and there are many - the most puzzling is that Franco and Mathews never once address the homophobic controversy of Cruising. Friedkin's film was cause for one of the first significant organized Hollywood protests by the gay community for its exploitation of sadomasochistic subculture and dark, seedy presentation of homosexuality. Whether Cruising is homophobic or merely dated, misguided or sinister, makes for a fascinating discussion, one wholly ignored by Franco and Mathews. This feels like a fun endeavor without a purpose, an exercise in envelope-pushing that never truly pushes. 

Cruising was forced under the censor's knife, those forty minutes condemned to obscurity by the MPAA, and the film is probably worse for it. But Interior. Leather Bar. doesn't need the MPAA to confine it, because this is a movie that censors itself.