I suppose on some level I should have known better. An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn is a mockumentary about a terrible film. The risk that it was itself a terrible film should have been apparent, especially after I’d watched the horrendous Not Another Not Another Movie, which has a similar root premise and format. And its reception on IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes certainly wasn’t setting the world on fire. But I thought it might still be worth watching. After all, it could simply have been too avant garde for most people; hey, it’s possible, and it’s certainly not a mainstream premise, after all. And it starred Eric Idle, who I’ve usually liked in films. And unlike Not Another Not Another Movie it wasn’t lying about its stars; it really does star Eric Idle in the title role as Alan Smithee. The potential was there. But, alas, it seems that movies about bad movies are themselves bad movies.
I must remember a good comedian doesn’t guarantee a good comedy.
Alan Smithee (Idle) is a highly respected editor in Hollywood, who everybody knows has been dying to direct a movie for years. He gets his chance when studio president Jerry Glover (Richard Jeni) and producer James Edmunds (Ryan O’Neal) approach him to direct their upcoming action blockbuster, Trio. The film-within-the-film stars Sylvester Stallone, Whoopi Goldberg, and Jackie Chan, and they play themselves in the mockumentary; their self-parodies provide some of the film’s few genuine laughs. As the film nears completion, Glover and Edmunds become increasingly convinced they’ve got a smash hit on their hands, while Smithee becomes increasingly convinced it’s a pile of garbage. Smithee wants his name taken off the picture — but at the time Burn Hollywood Burn was made, the Director’s Guild of America had a hard and set rule about taking a director’s name off the picture. If the director’s real name wasn’t used, an alias had to be used, and only one specific alias was allowed under the rules: Alan Smithee. Obviously this wasn’t going to work for the hapless director, and he goes off the deep end, stealing his own film. The mockumentary starts after the event in question, interviewing all the participants.
Sly probably wishes he’d thought of that after making Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot!
There are a lot of cameos in the film, from people the audience would immediately recognize, to people involved in film. Coolio and Chuck D play underground film directors who take Smithee in when he’s on the run. Stephen Tobolowsky, everybody’s favorite “Hey, it’s that guy!” guy, plays a psychiatrist paid to declare Smithee insane. Robert Shapiro plays himself giving his opinion on the case. Joe Eszterhas, who wrote Burn Hollywood Burn, plays himself as the writer of Trio giving everything a degree of circular criticism, as the film takes shots at his script, compares it to Showgirls (an earlier Eszterhas flop), and has someone else brought in to do a re-write (Shane Black, also playing himself). Even Harvey Weinstein — yes, the famed producer — has a role as private investigator Sam Rizzo, his sole role in front of the camera. It seems as though a lot of people were interested in having a part in this film poking fun at Hollywood.
It’s an open question as to whether this is the nadir of Whoopi’s career.
But for all the strength of the premise, and the variety of people involved, the comedy here is sorely lacking. It almost would have been a more interesting film had it been played straight. The story was actually somewhat interesting; it’s just the attempts at comedy were terrible, aside from the three film stars making fun of themselves and Eric Idle acting like a loony. But any time they weren’t on the screen, it became downright wretched. The film takes refuge in vulgarity and sex comedy, but it doesn’t seem to know what to do with it. The level of humor in the sex comedy aspect basically boils down to “this guy is getting a blowjob while giving an interview, that’s funny, right?” The same applies to the vulgarity; the film seems to expect us to laugh at the fact that characters are swearing, even though swearing is not, in and of itself, a form of comedy. And then there are the insults in the captions… every character is introduced with a caption saying who they are and what their role was, in keeping with the film purporting to be a documentary. And, since it’s a comedy, insults are slipped in. Some of these are all right, such as the gentle mockery of Stallone’s intelligence, or calling Jackie Chan a linguist. Not great, but all right. But it verged into uncomfortable territory very quickly when I noticed every single female character — from Whoopi to Smithee’s wife (Cherie Lunghi) to Edmund’s lover (Nicole Nagel) to a prostitute (Leslie Stefanson) — was labeled as a “feminist”. Once for irony on, say, the prostitute may have worked as a joke, but using it so ubiquitously makes it look like the notion of feminism itself is the running gag. Sexism generally isn’t funny, and never when it’s just by itself. But just as I was starting to get uncomfortable about that, the film labels Erik King’s character an Oreo.
Someone legitimately thought using an extremely vile racist term made for a good joke.
The saddest part about all of this is, the film wasn’t irredeemable. A re-write or three, some cuts, the removal of the sexist and racist jokes in favor of stuff that was actually funny…. I mean, the premise is sound, the plot could have made for a good film, there was talent involved in the acting… this could have worked. But there were multiple bad choices in the film, usually related to its sense of humor. The only person to blame here, really, is Joe Eszterhas. He wrote it, and there was nobody brought in to do a re-write. And ultimately he had creative control over the outcome as well.
Let me tell you the funniest thing about the film. And it is about the film, not in the film. The director attached to the project was Arthur Hiller. But as the film came to completion, Hiller was unhappy with it, and requested final cut. He didn’t get it. The studio gave it to Eszterhas instead; what was released was Eszterhas’s vision through and through. Hiller was displeased, and requested his name be taken off the picture, which of course meant there was only one name that could be used under the rules at the time for the director credit. And so it was that An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn was, in fact, credited to Alan Smithee. The situation was sufficiently ridiculous that the D.G.A. changed their rules afterward, allowing other names to be used as aliases. So the film’s impact in real life means the film’s plot is now impossible.
Now that’s funny.