There was a good energy to the depiction of movie-Woody’s nocturnal odyssey, and a few funny bits, but it was constructed upon a set of standard, and frankly, stale, comic premises that were eventually beaten into the ground.
Lost in London—Directed by Woody Harrelson, broadcast live in theaters on January 19 at 9 p.m. (ET).
By Betsy Sherman
One night last week, Woody Harrelson made his directorial debut, shooting a feature film with a single camera in a single long take. For Lost in London, he starred as himself in a comic re-creation of a calamity-filled night he spent in London 15 years ago. The daredevil aspect of the project is that the film was broadcast live to movie theaters (via Fathom Events) as it was unfolding. Within an hour and 45 minutes, the actor-director traveled a gauntlet of 14 locations within a two square mile area of the city. Some pre-show tidbits and a post-shoot live Q&A rounded out the event.
The results were mixed, for sure. Things went off with nary a serious hitch (there was a minor snafu that was chuckled over during the wrap-up). But in order to make it a winner of a project, you’d have to factor in points for effort and novelty. There was a good energy to the depiction of movie-Woody’s nocturnal odyssey, and a few funny bits, but it was constructed upon a set of standard, and frankly, stale, comic premises that were eventually beaten into the ground.
Harrelson’s versatility is well proven, and demonstrated in the contrast of his two forthcoming projects: LBJ, in which the Texan actor stars as the Texan prez, and as the title character in Wilson, a comedy written by Daniel Clowes (Ghost World). And despite his rowdy reputation as a pothead, his smarts aren’t in question either. Recent years have found him in dark projects like Rampart and True Detective (as well as the Hunger Games franchise), so I was glad to hear that the star of my beloved Kingpin was dipping back into comedy.
Regarding Lost in London, Harrelson has acknowledged the technical precedent of the 2015 German movie Victoria, set in a nightclub and filmed in a long uninterrupted take. Birdman must also have been a touchstone, both for its impression of seamlessness and for its meta look at a movie star.
Here was the pitch to potential moviegoers: Lost in London was scripted by Harrelson, and would feature appearances by pals Owen Wilson and Willie Nelson. The director’s creative partner would be director of photography Nigel Willoughby. There would be a cast of 30 actors, most British, and 320 extras. There would be two full run-throughs before the live show. But the unexpected seemed inevitable, and being game for some bloopers was part of the deal.
Audiences were first served a collection of messages to Woody from former co-stars (Ted Danson, Jennifer Lawrence, etc.) expressing, with mock alarm, an “Are you out of your mind?” theme. Jesse Eisenberg mixed Harrelson up—ha ha—with Woody Allen. These groaners were not a good sign. Then, a clip from rehearsal showed a crew person impressing upon the extras in the dance-club scene that they could scuttle the whole project if they happened to knock over the one-and-only camera operator, John Hembrough, during the live shoot. A twitter handle was plastered onscreen with an invitation to submit questions for the Q&A after the movie. Finally, showtime.
The movie opens with the text “Too much of this is true.” The first location is a theater during a lukewarm curtain call for a play that Woody’s in. As he mounts the stairs to his dressing room, he complains to his assistant that he’s tired of having to prove himself as a dramatic actor. We’re in the tiny room courtesy of the lens of cameraman Hembrough, whose aplomb we can appreciate, even when the story now and then flattens out.
An immediate drawback, however, is the poor visual quality. Perfection is not to be expected in vérité, but the image is very washed out, and chronically dark, except for a godsend location where there’s a lighting fixture within the bar where Harrelson and Owen Wilson are talking (the post-show Q&A looks fine, so it isn’t the movie theater’s fault). Thankfully, the sound is pretty good.
The plot hinges on a tabloid front page that we see briefly: Woody was photographed the night before with three women identified as prostitutes. The star panics—he’s gotta keep the news away from his wife Laura, because this may be the one-scandal-too-many that breaks the marriage. He joins Laura (played by Eleanor Matsuura) and their two young daughters at a restaurant. She sees the paper, gets angry, and Woody’s bounced into the London night.
The ensuing comedy relies on meat-and-potatoes devices of mistaken identity, misunderstandings and missed social cues. There’s another layer that concerns fame—there’s the occasionally arrogant, but sometimes over-compensatingly folksy, attitude of the Hollywood star, as well as regular people’s perceptions of him.
Woody is coaxed into the entourage of some Iranian expats, including a prince (who’s given some boorish dialogue). They take him in a VW bus to a Hippie & Gypsies party at a dance club. Stranded at the door and having to prove his celebrity to the bouncer, Harrelson the filmmaker has fun needling Woody the actor and his credits (he warbles the Cheers song). In the club he runs into Owen Wilson, in town briefly for a meeting. He confesses his fear about losing his family. “Best friend” Owen commiserates, but a fan intervenes who wants to trade lines from The Royal Tenenbaums. Woody accuses Owen of being “like Norma fuckin’ Desmond,” which launches a mutual career-bashing spat that’s entertaining, until it leads to a brawl. A gypsy woman who helps Woody hide from security injects a bit of mysticism into the night. After a cringe-worthy (à la Curb Your Enthusiasm) encounter with a wheelchair-bound man, Woody gets into a cab.
The row with the cabdriver may be part of the “too much of this is true,” but it’s unconvincingly over-the-top, and shouting doesn’t equal comedy. Anyway, this is what will land Woody in jail, after a sequence where the actor flees on foot and ends up on a playground slide (from the floor of a cab to a chase scene, cameraman Hembrough, you are a marvel!). In the wagon to the station, Woody gains the sympathy of a first-day-on-the-job cop named Paddy. There’s a draggy scene with an antagonistic desk sergeant, then a fun bout of soul-searching by Woody in his cell, in despair about the sudden loss (like in the title, get it?) of his wife and best friend (“Even Job had a week to adjust!”). A visitation by the Texas Dalai Lama—Willie Nelson—signals that everything will turn out alright. The resolution, sketchily motivated as it is, takes place on Waterloo Bridge with a picturesque view of the skyline (per the story, it’s supposed to be dawn, but it took place at around 3:45 a.m. London time).
Lost in London will presumably be packaged for consumption down the road. Will it hold up without the live element? Not too likely. But its legacy, allowing free-range storytellers to bypass the traditional channels of production and distribution and still achieve a theatrical experience, will have legs. It could be fruitful for an improv comedy group.
Hopefully future projects will be more adventurous in their content. This one had a satisfying moment in its reality component, the Q&A. We got to meet camera operator John Hemsbrough, his blond hair all awry, admitting with a frazzled smile that he was just feeling “shell-shocked.”
Betsy Sherman has written about movies, old and new, for The Boston Globe, The Boston Phoenix, and The Improper Bostonian, among others. She holds a degree in archives management from Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science. When she grows up, she wants to be Barbara Stanwyck.