Having a fair amount of friends with hands in the creative world, I’ve witnessed a lot of sparsely attended debuts - improv class showcases in makeshift theatres, solo-album release shows in over-ambitiously rented music halls, art shows in active cafes. There’s a certain sense of obligation going in, of worry, because your friend is doing something that very well may not work out. So when Woody Harrelson announced he had written, would direct, and would star in a feature length single-take film shot on the streets of London that would be broadcast live to 500 theatres world-wide that was primarily about a drunken night he had in 2002 and his concern over a tabloid sex scandal and making sure his kids got to meet Harry Potter, I put on my coat. Because you put on your coat for friends*, even if their ideas are worrisome.
(*we are not friends)
The film opens with Woody, playing himself, frustratingly leaving the London stage of a poorly received dramatic play he’s starring in, attended by approximately fifteen sleepy people (which was honestly about how many people were in my theater for this broadcast). “I don’t get the idea of drama. It doesn’t make people happy.” says a friend backstage, followed shortly by someone on the street shouting “I miss Cheers!”. What follows is structurally far more play than film, or a very clever Trojan-horse blurring of the two, interspersing relationship drama with screwball buddy comedy and moments of surrealist weirdness as Woody navigates being who he needs to be to whoever needs it. It’s something that was on a technical and conceptual level unimaginable until very recently: a full length meta-play dramedy, shot with a single camera on the streets of a busy metropolitan city, watched in real-time HD in a movie theatre across a literal ocean, that references Marley & Me.
Now that’s where it could have gone horribly wrong, and shockingly it didn’t. Ever try to take a photo on a street? Ever try to do anything? Short of a pee-shy Woody who didn’t land a thrown newspaper in a fire, and a quick LAV microphone malfunction during a playground scuffle, this insanely ambitious project went off without any of the hitches that seemed so inevitable. Christ, there was even some kind of bomb scare earlier in the day at a central location of the film when an unexploded WWII bomb was discovered. Bravo to the cast and crew for pulling this feat off to the level where for the most part I forgot about it entirely.
However, when the stunt aspect of how it was made and the context of how you’re watching it starts taking a backseat, you’re left with only the narrative and its characters. At its core, this is a 100 minute long “one time…” bar story told by a charismatic actor that's frankly just ok, and probably not even his craziest story (he was in a movie with Nick Nolte). I get that stories get embellished, and bar stories get embellished further, but it was often difficult to tell if the film was trying to give an accurate recreation of the night, or a flourished one stacked with auxiliary characters and tropes for the sake of padding keypoints along the journey. Multiple characters appear, change nothing, and then disappear. We get a manic pixie dream girl in the form of a dancing gypsy party-goer who changes nothing, and then disappears covered in Woody's vomit (which itself may be a clever statement). The overall tone became inconsistent and the message and purpose blurrier and blurrier. My fiance called it “a play for play’s sake” and I had to agree.
Now suppose I’m telling you a story about a crazy night I had. I will tell you about the part that happened in the Wendy’s parking lot when I got all the chicken nuggets, and then I will tell you about the part that happened later at my friend’s party across the river where I threw those chicken nuggets at a police car. If we were filming this story in a traditional film, we would cut from the parking lot to the party, because nobody cares about the cab ride in-between. Traveling transitions are absent from so many movies, and orated stories, because they slow things down. Lost In London spends a fair amount of time getting from one place to the next in small vehicles and echo’y hallways with confusing and muffled small talk, and I would imagine these transitions will get edited down for the streaming release that will come later. Tucked in the background of these transitions however are some really interesting tableaus, his obscured memories of strangers that seemingly needed a home.
There are a handful of cameos that breathe needed life into the film to overcome its inherently un-cut pace, so when Owen Wilson shows up and plays “150% Owen Wilson”, demanding Woody to “Do your Elvis, you’re good at Elvis.” it’s very welcome. When he shows up again, it’s again very welcome. When Reggae Bono shows up, it’s confusing and too removed from reality, but I can’t pretend one of the films highlights wasn’t Bono saying “Ja Bless”. When The Ghost of Willie Nelson shows up, its hands in the air “Sure, whatever. You’ve got my money, I’ve got my popcorn; do your thang.”
Will the film work removed from the stunt of its broadcasting? Will it feel the same when he starts making cuts to scenes and it’s no longer a single take? Will it have the same charm with post-production sound and polish? Was that really the story worth putting forth all this effort? Was Dave Attell’s Insomniac a better watch? Is Woody Harrelson a good person? Not sure, but I regret nothing. This was a fascinating and brave effort on the part of Woody and his crew, a proof of concept that needed to happen to progress and blend mediums and genres, and it’s really exciting to think about a world where this door is now open.