One certainly can’t accuse James Franco of not stretching himself artistically. In the same summer where he’s played an exaggerated version of himself as he goes through the apocalypse, he’s also co-directed a documentary/fiction chimera about him filming scenes of explicit gay sex. But it’s a shame that Interior. Leather Bar. is never as interesting as that descriptor may suggest.
The story behind the 1980 film Cruising is a fascinating clusterfuck. During the movie’s production, the New York City gay community, fearing that it portrayed their world in a dehumanizing light, actively worked to thwart the shoot. The MPAA was aghast at the initial cut of the film, which dove into leather bars and S&M clubs, and slapped an X rating on it. Eventually, 40 minutes of footage, supposedly consisting of graphic sexuality, were cut, and that material has since been lost. Eventually, Cruising came out to mixed reviews and a low box office.
In Interior. Leather Bar., Franco and collaborator Travis Matthews decide to recreate that lost footage. They recruit Franco’s friend Val Lauren to play the Pacino role, and set about shooting scenes that they imagine are like what was once in Cruising. But the movie isn’t about this reconstruction. Nor is it about the process of making it. Mostly, it’s talk. Franco and Matthews talk about taboos in depictions of sexuality in culture. Franco and Lauren talk about how making this movie could affect Franco’s image. Lauren talks about his discomfort as a straight man being present for unsimulated gay sex. The grand majority of this film is chatter, making it seem longer than its 60-minute runtime.
Never content to leave well enough alone with making a film about a film within a film, Franco and Matthews also highlight their own artifice with scenes like one in which Lauren reads his own script as he talks over his feelings about the shoot. It all feels aggressively film student-ish, battering the audience with metatextuality. Even though all the ideas they’re playing with are more than worthy of discussion, they aren’t really doing anything interesting with them. If the mostly formless narrative was building to a real point, then I’ll freely admit to having missed it.
If the movie was really working with any sort of transgressive material, then it might at least be provocative. But there’s only two of these much-discussed sex scenes, and while they are indeed explicit in their detail, they still feel strangely rote. In the original Cruising, Friedkin hired actual patrons of the leather bars in which he shot as extras and told them to just do their thing. It feels skeevy and authentic. In contrast, everything about what Franco and Matthews put together seems amateurish, play-acting at grit. Even the second sex scene, performed by two men who are a couple in real life and infused with a convincing sense of intimacy, fails to really make an impression.
Interior. Leather Bar. is an intriguing hook that doesn’t snag anything on it. This is the embodiment of the Franco that Franco was poking fun of in This is the End. And there’s a reason that schtick was funny – this Franco isn’t insightful, he’s dull.