If it were news that Hollywood is a playground for narcissistic power-trippers, An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn would still be a snore. Not even the regulars at Spago and Le Dome, though they're overrepresented in the film by a flotilla of smirking celebs anxious to earn their good-sport medals, will be scrambling for bootleg tapes of this little dodo when it vanishes from deserted theaters after a week. Originally titled An Alan Smithee Film, the suffix was hastily added when Disney woke up to the fact that the rest of America neither knows nor cares who whacks whom in the name of creative process. Nor will anyone of sound mind thrill to the movie's skinny premise, built around the Directors Guild requirement that directors who remove their names from projects they consider ruined by philistine bean counters be credited under the pseudonym Alan Smithee. For that matter, how many will take to their bosoms the irony that Alan Smithee director Arthur Hiller, who bailed after screenwriter Joe Eszterhas made his own final cut, is listed in the credits as Alan Smithee?
With Alan Smithee, Eszterhas delivers his second broadside to the movie business. His first was the notorious 1989 letter to Michael Ovitz that clogged fax machines all over town, quoting the then-CAA boss as threatening to send his foot soldiers pounding down Wilshire Boulevard to blow out the departing screenwriter's brains. Those of us who could cheerfully have done without Basic Instinct, Jade, Sliver or Showgirls might have welcomed such a move as a pre-emptive strike on behalf of the popular arts. Today Eszterhas' resume looks a lot plumper than Ovitz's, and will continue to flourish despite the disaster that is Alan Smithee. As mass-market screenwriters go, Eszterhas is gold. Even the execrable Showgirls, which took a hammering from the critics and flopped at the box office despite all efforts to retool it as camp, has more than redeemed itself in video and international markets.
It would take more paranoia than even Eszterhas can muster to cast himself as a hapless victim of the mogul ax. Accordingly, the crushed hero of Alan Smithee is not a poor scribe but a British film editor whose first Hollywood break as a director, a $200 million action-adventure starring Whoopi Goldberg, Jackie Chan, Sylvester Stallone and a forest of AK-47s, is mauled into a spectacularly bankable atrocity by producer James Edmunds (Ryan O'Neal, having much more fun than he should) and studio boss Jerry Glover (standup comedian Richard Jeni). When the distraught director, played by the genially goofy Monty Python alum Eric Idle, discovers that he can't distance himself from the movie because his name really is Alan Smithee, he makes off with the negative, and a dreary chase is born.
Framed as a mock documentary based on wildly discrepant testimony from everyone involved - on the lot, at the gym and the usual watering holes, at the Keith Moon psychiatric facility where a gibbering Smithee is now confined - Alan Smithee comes packaged in three acts, coyly titled for the different ways in which the director gets fucked (Missionary Position, Whips and Chains, Doggie Style). That's about as much structure as you'll see in this rambling excuse for Eszterhas to hand out screen time to his pals and take potshots at his enemies. Not that you can always tell the difference, for Eszterhas is an equal-opportunity badmouther. Thus: Robert Evans as himself; Miramax's Harvey Weinstein, clearly enraptured to be in front of the camera as detective Sam Rizzo; Robert Shapiro as his oily self, refusing to take on Smithee because he doesn't want high-profile cases; Chuck D and Coolio as Leon and Dion Brothers ("we bullshit-proof"), who champion Smithee's cause with a vengeance; Stallone wanly poking fun at his artistic ambitions; and of course Eszterhas himself, tagged in the faux bio that accompanies his interview as "screenwriter and penile implant." Eszterhas strives for a tone at once affectionate and self-deprecating, but his quips drop like lead, laced with the lumpish malice we've come to expect from his work. As always with Eszterhas, it's women who get shafted, most being dubbed "bitch" or "feminist" or both in the bios. Then there's Sandra Bernhard as Jerry's social-climbing, henpecking studio wife, and overweight film critic Sheila Caslin, played by Marianne Muellerleile in obvious payback to New York Times film critic Janet Maslin for calling Eszterhas "the Andrew Dice Clay of screenwriters."
If Eszterhas wants to tell us what we already learned in countless superior comedies from The Player to Wag the Dog - that the entertainment business is a mean and petty world where everything matters but art - he'd have done better (and, Lord knows, shorter, at 88 minutes Alan Smithee seems interminable) to fire off another internal memo to a big cheese than put us through this poorly edited, unimaginatively shot and unspeakably boring misfire. The message to take home from Alan Smithee's very existence has nothing to do with studio interference and everything to do with studio indulgence of moneymaking talent it wants to keep happy. Though the modestly budgeted Alan Smithee will not be in the same financial-loss league as Kevin Costner's The Postman, both are vanity projects that should never have seen a green light.
The pity of it is that Eszterhas can think and write, and I don't mean the overblown and emotionally crude Music Box, which, I'll wager, he considers his finest work. Last fall Banner Entertainment released Telling Lies in America, a small coming-of-age drama set in Cleveland, where the Hungarian-born Eszterhas was raised, about a confused teenager who has to figure out what truth-telling is when he is forced to choose between betraying his father, a Hungarian immigrant seeking American citizenship, and the brash disc jockey he idolizes, and for whom he works unwittingly as a payola stooge. Written with vernacular lyricism by Eszterhas and intelligently directed by Guy Ferland, the movie is fascinating for what it reveals about the screenwriter, who at last lets down his guard and, through this sensitive, sexually terrified literary boy, examines the roots of his own me-against-the-world bravado.
In interviews Eszterhas comes across as rational and wry, even endearing, but somewhere along the screenwriter's tawdry road to success, that boy grew a lazy mind and a vulgar heart. Yet even today, I suspect, Eszterhas is less a cynic than a twisted crusader who fancies himself the chief architect of a radical sexuality designed to rescue America from its calcified puritanism. Sharon Stone parting her legs in public for Michael Douglas in Basic Instinct, Elizabeth Berkeley French-kissing Gina Gershon between water aerobics with Kyle MacLachlan in Showgirls, Ryan O'Neal getting head while being interviewed in Alan Smithee - what could be less pioneering than the sex in Eszterhas' movies, which in its sordid, silly naughtiness adds up to no more than a knee-jerk reaction to puritanism? Where Eszterhas' sex approaches the cold tedium of porn, in Boogie Nights, Paul Thomas Anderson, two decades younger and worlds wiser, sympathetically nailed American porn as a funny-sad twist on the need to connect and - yes - to raise life into art.
As one of the priciest screenwriters in the business, Eszterhas has removed himself from writing movies like Telling Lies in America (which he wrote years ago), movies where he has to think and feel and tell as well as show. In his letter to Ovitz, Eszterhas whined that if the agent set out to ruin him, he would have to sell the expensive house he'd just bought. If he needs to keep writing schlockbusters to support his Malibu habit, so be it. In the meantime, he has no credibility as a critic of the hand that feeds him. At least he's man enough to know it: As Arthur Hiller amiably informs a grinning Eszterhas over lunch in Alan Smithee, "The last thing we need is you to stick up for directors."
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.