James Franco was a no show on Sunday night for the SXSW world premiere of his feature-documentary directorial debut, Saturday Night, a behind-the-scenes look at the week-long production of a December 2008 episode of Saturday Night Live. In his absence, Franco sent an introductory video, shot from a hotel room in Salt Lake City, where he's apparently shooting Danny Boyle's 127 Hours. Oddly fractured and cheerfully winky (as if to offer evidence as to how much he's suffering by not being in Austin, Franco complains of Utah, “I can't even watch porn on the internet, because it's blocked!”), Franco's video embodied the spontaneous, non-sequitur spirit that fuels so much hip, successful contemporary comedy. Ironically, the intro made the process documented within the feature seem that much more stodgy and solipsistic.
Originally conceived as a five-minute short on Bill Hader for a homework assignment (Franco's a film student at NYU), Saturday Night blossomed into a feature when Hader's boss Lorne Michaels invited Franco and producing partners Vince Jolivette and Myles Levy to sit in on the week-long writing and rehearsal process for an episode hosted by John Malkovich. According to Franco's intro, the great documentarians D.A. Pennebaker and Ricky Leacock had tried to make a verite piece about the show in the 70s, but back then, “Lorne said no. I guess because there was more to hide with that incredible cast.”
If that sounds like a backhanded compliment to the current cast of the show, well, it's nothing compared to what Franco's put on film (actually, videotape; the only interesting thing about the way Saturday Night is crafted is that several types of video seem to have been used, ranging from crisp broadcast quality to a choppy black-and-white image that looks like PXLvision). In bringing cameras inside the world behind Saturday Night Live, Franco reveals the production to be an airtight bubble, penetrated only by the occasional headline, seen on screen in the form of the news ticker visible outside the window of Weekend Update writer Doug Abeles' office window.
Writing the show in insomniac delirium, comedians-turned-writers like John Mulaney and performer/scribes like Will Forte riff on dated cultural references (skits inspired by Liza Minnelli, Judy Blume, and the Empire Carpet commercial are batted around) that are so lifeless that they could have only been collected prior to induction into this world. These people are making comedy that's supposed to sum up our culture–a culture that has become obsessed with “sharing”–and they do it by locking themselves in an office building for a week, where they test out their material by cracking up their co-workers. Each writing session seems to devolve into uncontrollable giggles; the people who make SNL seem far more pleased with their own product than any viewer has been in a long while.
The cronyism of the SNL institution is reflected in the film itself–Franco friends Forte and Hader are featured prominently, while cast members who fall out of the 30-something white dude demographic like Kristen Wiig and Kenan Thompson are barely seen outside of the context of sketches. Then a recent addition to the cast and now no longer on the show, Casey Wilson is seen struggling to get material on air, while even newer cast member Bobby Moynihan is written into sketches by Hader and Fred Armisen. Franco himself is caught on camera, smoking, chatting with cast and crew, beginning sentences with the phrase, “When I hosted the show…” apparently without irony.
Saturday Night is fascinating and absolutely worth seeing, but for what are probably the wrong reasons. It can't be the actor-turned-filmmaker's intention to make this specific cast or the greater SNL institution look bad (as Jolivette admitted, the filmmakers are friends with several cast members), but Saturday Night stands as a document of a dinosaur, chugging along in oblivion, unaware and or/uncaring that the world is changing and it'll have to adapt to survive. If it's a selective portrait, don't blame the editor, Operation: Dreamland director Ian Olds, who according to Joviette got one note from Team Franco: “make it funnier.” “Actually, this is pretty much exactly what it's like there,” Jolivette said last night. I'll take his word for it.