Review: ‘Project Greenlight’ goes 0-for-4 with the limp ‘The Leisure Class’

When “Project Greenlight” rose from the TV dead earlier this fall, the HBO reality series made headlines for an argument between one of its two celebrity producers in Matt Damon, and indie film veteran Effie Brown, who had been hired to line produce the latest “Greenlight” film. As the series' decision-makers put their heads together to pick this season's winning director, Brown – the only person of color in the room, and one of only two women – argued that they shouldn't be so quick to dismiss a filmmaking team featuring a white woman and a Vietnamese man, since their outsider perspectives could be very useful in rewriting the planned script, “Not Another Pretty Woman,” where one of the main characters is a black female prostitute. Damon talked over Brown, insisted that you find diversity “in the casting of the movie, not the casting of the show,” and in a later talking head, scoffed at the idea of changing the focus of “what the competition is supposed to be about, which is giving someone the job based entirely on merit, and leaving all other factors out of it.”

Damon's belief in “Greenlight” as a pure meritocracy sounds nice in theory, but there are several fundamental flaws in his argument. One is that Damon, Ben Affleck, and everyone involved in the series' various incarnations have a historically poor track record at choosing the best filmmaker, based on the quality of the three previous “Greenlight” films. (By now, they've pretty much reached George Costanza territory, where the smartest thing they could do was to go with the opposite of every impulse.)

More importantly, you can prioritize a lot of different benchmarks to figure out who's the best director. More often than not – including this year's winner, Jason Mann – Damon and company have gone with the director with the most impressive visual sense and technical proficiency. But there are plenty of great directors – Affleck is arguably one of them – whose strengths lie more in their work with actors, or their command of tone, or simply the ability to translate their own writing properly to the screen, than in having a beautiful eye.

This isn't to say that the team Effie argued for, or the Beanie Bro, or any of the other runners-up, would have made a great movie out of the “Not Another Pretty Woman” script, which nearly everyone agreed would need a major rewrite. But from what we knew of the film, it didn't seem likely to make much use of Jason's skillset, which is why he hedged so much in his final job interview – and ultimately got the gig even though he so obviously didn't want it – and later convinced the producers to instead let him film his own script, “The Leisure Class,” which premieres tonight at 10 on HBO.

The bulk of the season dealt with the conflict between Jason, the precious artiste who seemed to prioritize aesthetic luxuries – shooting on film, finding an LA mansion that looked exactly like the kind of old-world Connecticut estate he had in his head – over the practical realities of making a low-budget indie, and Effie, whose initial cool demeanor heated to a slow boil over Jason's refusal to compromise on anything, and eventually began turning on other producers because Jason had made her so paranoid.

As was the case in the three previous seasons, this made for addictive, if often maddening, television. And as was unfortunately the case in the three previous seasons, the end result is a movie so forgettable, it seems amazing that everyone kept getting so upset about it. 

It's not the worst of the “Greenlight” films – “Stolen Summer” (whose writer/director Pete Jones improbably returned to the franchise this season to help Jason rewrite his script) still  holds that distinction – but it's insubstantial, clumsy, and ineffective as either comedy or drama.

What's funny, in hindsight, is how little all the conflicts that drove most of the TV show have to do with the flaws of the movie, or even its modest strengths. Shooting it on film? It looks just fine on HBO's press screening site (which is more or less how it'll look on HBO GO/HBO NOW), but it's not some visual feast that justifies Jason's insistence on film vs. digital. Having to shoot parts of the movie in daylight because Jason's intractability on picking a location made it impossible to get permits to film at night? It wouldn't be noticeable at all if you hadn't seen the show. (Though there's also no reason to watch this movie if you haven't watched the show.) A car crash stunt that didn't go as planned, and that there wasn't extra room in the schedule to re-do because, again, Jason cared more about shooting on film than literally anything else in the production? The final version of the crash serves its purpose in the plot reasonably well.

No, the problem is that script, which does a very poor job of establishing the characters, premise, and conflicts involved when an English con man (Ed Weeks from The Mindy Project) is on the verge of marrying the daughter (Bridget Regan from half the shows on television at the moment) of a blue-blood Connecticut senator (Bruce Davison, who somehow wasn't in any of the previous “Greenlight” films, even though it feels like he must have been). The characters are barely sketched in at all, the pacing is wildly off – it's an 85-minute movie that feels like it lasts forever, even as it doesn't have enough time to properly service any important parts of the story – and the only sparks of life come whenever Weeks and Tom Bell (star and co-writer of the original “Leisure Class” short, and a former co-star of Weeks' on British television), as Weeks' less polished criminal brother, are simply bantering, and we know from the show that almost all of that was improvised. In the “Greenlight” finale, Effie, test audiences, and everyone else who gets a look at the film complains that Regan's character doesn't make much sense, but nobody does, except occasionally as WASP cliches.

The movie takes a dark turn late, with Davison threatening extreme violence in response to what the brothers have been up to, but it plays less as the black comic set piece Mann and others described than as an abrupt and clunky shift into melodrama. The movie's too leaden to function as a comedy, and too flimsy for any of the character arcs to be taken seriously.

There's no there there.

In last week's penultimate “Greenlight” episode, Affleck and HBO executive producer Len Amato observed that they had given in to Jason on nearly everything he wanted – shooting on film, substituting his script for the one they had chosen, casting Bell and Weeks – but felt good because the footage they had seen so far suggested he was worthy of that trust. In the finale, though, Affleck struggled to be diplomatic about “The Leisure Class,” calling it “not to my taste,” while Amato joined Effie and producer Marc Joubert in his exasperation with Jason's inability to compromise or even acknowledge the value of outside input. Jason fought for his vision, and the finished product of that vision will likely be gone and forgotten just as quickly as “Stolen Summer,” “The Battle of Shaker Heights,” and “Feast,” and continue to brand “Project Greenlight” as another reality talent competition that's far better at being a TV show than it is finding and grooming the next great talent.

Though maybe if everyone decides to give it another try next year, all involved might consider redefining what it is they should be looking for when trying to find the “best” director. Effie Brown certainly wasn't perfect in how she handled herself throughout the season, but when she made that first argument for the value of filmmakers who could understand the perspectives of others, she couldn't have been more prescient in pointing out how badly things would go with their winner.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at