James Franco constantly gets bored and switches careers, always moving on to gleefully experiment with (and sometimes destroy) a different job: painting, writing, teaching, and so on. This week, James Franco is a documentarian. Well, technically, James Franco was a documentarian in 2008 when he filmed a short for an NYU film class in which he went behind the scenes at Saturday Night Live. The project was later expanded into a feature-length film and is finally available for public viewing with its debut on Hulu Plus today. The end result is strange in that it’s not strange. Saturday Night isn’t very James Franco-like; instead, it’s a straightforward and simplistic documentary that tells us a lot of what we already knew.
Saturday Night has the unmistakable markings of a collegiate student film — trust me, I’ve both seen and made plenty of them — and is just shy of beginning with an alarm clock going off. There’s shaky camera work, which is typical with documentaries but comes off as a bit amateurish here. Franco isn’t exactly an expert in the art of cinéma vérité, but he did stay awake long enough in his Introduction to Documentary Filmmaking to learn the basics.
The documentary has an built-in narrative due to SNL‘s strict Tuesday-to-Saturday schedule. Franco knows which aspects of the show would most intrigue viewers: the pitch process, the late-night gigglefests with favorite cast members and writers, the table read of all the sketches, the way Lorne Michaels and co. figure out which sketches to schedule (and how that week’s host factors into these decisions), and the final, tense moments leading up to the episode officially going live on the air.
Franco interrupts these fly-on-the-wall scenes with one-on-one interviews with various cast and crew members, as documentaries are wont to do, but not of all of them provide creative juxtaposition. Instead of adding to the building story, some of the interviews are simply lifeless interjections or inane bits that Franco apparently couldn’t bear to cut. It’s a classic student film problem: being unable to separate your love for a scene you shot from the reality that this particular scene may not be necessary. For example, there’s a strange moment with Bill Hader doing something involving a mirror and a Prince song, but we’re not sure what it is. Through title cards, Franco assures us that “This is one of the funniest bits of Mr. Hader’s career,” but they had to mute the audio because the couldn’t get the rights to the song. A follow-up title card accurate conveys the viewer’s ambivalent reaction: “wtf”
But for the most part, Saturday Night is, surprisingly, not too self-indulgent. Franco relishes his role behind the camera, only occasionally showing up for a crinkly-eyed reaction shot in a stray interview here and there. Most of the interviews remain focused solely on the subject. Still, Franco has a lot to learn when it comes to getting honest, interesting answers from his documentary subjects. Despite the fact that he’s hosted the show and knows the cast already, they don’t seem very connected to him. Everything is a bit too obvious, like talking to Andy Samberg about being a comedian vs. being an actor (Samberg: “I feel like I could tell a dick joke real good”) or asking if there’s a “lot of pressure” involved in making people laugh (I think we can all figure out the answer to that one). When Franco finally sits down with Lorne Michaels toward the end of the film, he asks the hard-hitting question, “What’s your biggest worry? That you’ll have a bad show?” “Obviously,” Michaels responds.
The problem with a Saturday Night Live documentary is that we already know so much about how Saturday Night Live works thanks to countless articles and the popular book Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live, as Told By Its Stars, Writers and Guests, which practically everyone with even a fleeting interest in sketch comedy has read. We know about the grueling schedule, so it’s not a surprise to learn that cast members don’t get much sleep during the week. We know that sketches get cut, that the writers often pair up with an actor, that they do a dress rehearsal before the live show to gauge the audience’s reaction.
That said, there are still some good moments in Saturday Night that makes it worth checking out. It centers on a John Malkovich-hosted episode, so it’s fun to see how sketches are crafted to work specifically for him. Casey Wilson’s confessions of insecurity after a bad table read — “I want to kill myself” — are sweetly honest (and sad, since her stint was so brief); watching everyone make each other laugh during rehearsals is pretty cool; and the glimpses into the lives of lesser-known crew members — such as the ones who have to build a hot tub within two days — is interesting.
A wonderful scene involves John Mulaney and Bill Hader working together but mostly just cracking each other up, laughing in that uncontrollable and hysterical way that college kids do when they’ve been up too late writing toward the end of finals week. In fact, parts of the documentary reminded me of my own years spent writing for a college humor magazine, particularly the cast’s table read, where it’s clear the things they find completely hilarious might not work as well for the larger public. It’s reminiscent of stoners thinking of the funniest thing in the world and realizing, the next day, that there’s no actual punchline there.
Saturday Night is fairly inconsistent, with a handful of nice touches that fail to build a complete documentary. It’s light even for 90 minutes. It’s a strange case, because James Franco has remade himself as an oddball, self-indulgent, and divisive artist, but his touch is barely felt in this documentary. He’s reined himself in significantly, which should be a good thing, yet Saturday Night suffers from being so typical and basic. It’s possible I’ll regret this sentence in the future, but: Maybe we need weird James Franco after all.