There’s little reason to waste 85 minutes watching Jason Mann’s “The Leisure Class,” a tonally troubled and reprehensibly dull movie that premieres on HBO on Monday night — unless you’ve been sucked into the clash of egos that birthed “The Leisure Class,” as chronicled on HBO’s deliciously frustrating reality series, “Project Greenlight.”
In that case, “The Leisure Class” is the last, necessary piece of a Hollywood puzzle and an affirming dose of schadenfreude.
In September, HBO revived and retooled “Project Greenlight,” which is produced (more like touched) by entrenched movie stars Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, who still insist the effort is all about celebrating amateur filmmakers while showing the nitty-gritty of the filmmaking process.
In its first three seasons, which aired from 2001 to 2005, “Project Greenlight” was best at demonstrating both the smarm and heartbreak that color the dreadful compromises between art and commerce. Then and now, the show excels at documenting the passive-aggressive smiles and back-patting hugs that accompany the sharp knife between the ribs.
This time, “Project Greenlight” emphasized how much the industry had changed in a decade: Some 5,000 contestants submitted their short films online (instead of on videotape and other deceased formats), using an array of cheaper, niftier digital tools available to anyone near a Best Buy. The films were judged by the Facebook masses; the finalists flew to Los Angeles to make their final pitch.
Instead of holding a simultaneous screenwriting competition, this time “Project Greenlight” had a rough script in hand for a feature-length comedy, provided by producers Peter and Bobby Farrelly, whose hits include “Dumb and Dumber” and “There’s Something About Mary.”
It would be up to “Project Greenlight’s” winning director to collaborate on a script-polish and then get a production underway with a $3 million budget and a shooting schedule of 20 days. Rather than a theatrical release (another faded ritual), the finished product would air on HBO.
All of that made for a better series, but what’s really changed since 2003 is something Damon and Affleck and the rest clearly weren’t prepared for: Viewers now have a noticeably more enlightened perception of diversity in the workplace, not just as it pertains to Hollywood, but as it pertains to any office setting, where collaboration is supposed to come before individual vision — yet seldom does.
Over time, I’ve learned that nothing burns up more of a TV critic’s (and a reader’s) energy than an attempt to colorfully recap everything that goes down in one season of a reality show. Suffice it to say that “Project Greenlight” has, whether it meant to or not, provided several essays’ worth of commentary on the delicate subjects of race, gender, professionalism and respect.
The winning contestant, Jason Mann, displayed an unusually effective sense of raw entitlement. By the third episode, Mann had convinced the executives above him — up to and including HBO Films President Len Amato — to drop their initial screenplay and instead greenlight a feature-length version of a short film he’d made earlier called “The Leisure Class.”
With an artisanal disdain for the industry-wide use of digital shooting, Mann insisted on shooting with old-fashioned film, impervious to the added costs. In search of a mansion set that looked “Connecticut” enough to suit his style, he quibbled with location scouts almost until the first day of shooting, sending the rest of the production into a scheduling panic. And because Mann waited so long to pick a location, the producers were unable to secure permission to shoot at night, which displeased him. He also insisted on an expensively choreographed car chase and crash scene, delaying a final decision until it was nearly impossible to shoot the stunt properly and safely.
To the bitter end, Mann was a deceptively effective manipulator — a fact made even more remarkable by the fact that, on camera, he looked like the very definition of milquetoast. Mann had just about everyone convinced that he’s the next Wes Anderson. (As “The Leisure Class” makes perfectly clear, he’s got a long way to go.)
The only person standing in his way — thank God — was Effie T. Brown, who served as one of “The Leisure Class’s” two line producers. In simplest terms, Brown was the one who was in charge of bringing the film in on time and on budget.
In the first episode, viewers learned that Brown, who is African American, was brought in not only for her considerable production expertise but also to serve unofficially as in-house conscience on diversity — especially since “Project Greenlight” was originally leaning toward the Farrelly-backed idea, a twisted comedy about a prostitute.
Brown gamely took on the task of helping Mann make his film. She was seen sweating out the big and little details while he dwelled on the artistically trivial. She offered professional advice; he made it clear that he considered himself the expert. For her troubles, Brown received a lecture from Damon on the true meaning of diversity. She also lacked full support from her co-producer, Marc Joubert, who in one moment would commiserate with her and in the next moment sell her out.
As Mann continued to hold his cast, crew and executives under a spell (to the end, they praised his determination to stick to his vision), it was up to Brown to look at the camera and ask: Am I crazy? Is this really happening? She wasn’t always a heroic figure (no one gets out of reality TV looking like an angel), and she probably spent too much time griping about Mann. Nevertheless, week after week, viewers couldn’t help but root for her.
Seen objectively as just another made-for-HBO movie, “The Leisure Class” is bad enough that the network would probably be too embarrassed to air it in any other context but this one. And now that “Project Greenlight” viewers have endured watching the sausage get made, they’re entitled to taste as much of it as they can stomach.
Mostly they will get the pleasure of having their suspicions confirmed: Film vs. digital? There is no discernible difference — at least, not one that would have made “The Leisure Class” any better. The squabbles over transitioning from daytime to nighttime scenes? You never notice. The car crash? Totally unnecessary.
The plot, such that there is one, starts out as a “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”-esque caper about a British man named William Rooney (played by “The Mindy Project’s” Ed Weeks), who is about to marry into a wealthy political family in Connecticut. On the eve of his wedding, William’s possibly insane brother Leonard (Tom Bell) shows up unexpectedly, bearing a secret: William is not really William at all; his name is Charles, and the marriage is all a scam to get at the money.
The only comic moments in “The Leisure Class” rest on Weeks and Bell’s improvisational ability to riff and bicker, which is funny at first and then peters out because it has nowhere to go. About halfway through, the film devolves into an unseemly psychodrama in the mansion’s basement, where the father of the bride (Bruce Davison) threatens to sexually humiliate and kill the two brothers.
Everyone on “Project Greenlight” kept referring to the screenplay as “dark,” but maybe they just meant “dim.” In the end, “The Leisure Class” is a sour, empty, confusing story that is stretched beyond its limits into a feature film.
“The Leisure Class” is also a film that now has Effie Brown’s name on it, as well as Jason Mann’s, as well as Ben Affleck’s and Matt Damon’s and all the rest — something they and the Internet Movie Database can share in fleeting ignominy.
Despite its idealistic aim, “Project Greenlight” hasn’t taught us very much about filmmaking techniques, has it? Mostly it has taught us what we already know, that some people are just awful to the people around them. More hauntingly, it winds up resembling our own workplaces, with the deceitful caprice, the unanswered queries, the disregard for process, the phony notions of teamwork — it’s all painfully familiar.
As the trappings of a Hollywood/Silicon Valley-style creative class have expanded to the point that even law firms are doing away with corner offices and buttoned-down hierarchies and replacing them with work nooks and team pods, the Effie/Jason struggle over cooperation and respect is real. Someone should make a movie about it.
The Leisure Class (85 minutes) airs Monday at 10 p.m. on HBO, with encores.
Project Greenlight (40 minutes) season finale airs Sunday at 10 p.m. on HBO.