I wanted to like The Leisure Class. As difficult as this might be for anyone who has been reading my Project Greenlight Season 4 recaps to believe, it’s true. I hoped the movie would be good because any critic cynical enough to root for a first-time filmmaker’s failure is probably in the wrong business, and because it’s a shame when any work that costs $3.5 million in an economy as competitive for artists as ours turns out to be a waste of money. But most of all, I wanted to like stubborn, ascetic director Jason Mann’s debut feature because I wanted to believe that the past eight weeks’ worth of awkward conversations, coded language, and general acrimony were the price of… well, if not genius, good art.
Unfortunately, The Leisure Class — which aired on HBO last night, just a day after Greenlight‘s finale, because the network either didn’t want to give it a precious weekend slot or thought it would kill the curiosity factor by waiting a week — is not good art. Though Mann described it, on Sunday’s episode, as “a very unorthodox movie,” it’s actually a largely conventional combination of farce, rom-com, chamber drama, and comedy of manners. As viewers likely already gleaned from Greenlight, the action takes place over the course of a weekend, at the sprawling estate of Senator Edward Langston (Bruce Davison) and his wife Charlotte (Brenda Strong). Edward’s favorite daughter and heir apparent Fiona (Bridget Regan) is about to marry Charles (Ed Weeks), a man her father has handpicked as the perfect spouse to help her launch her own political career. But when Charles’ rude, unkempt brother Leonard (Tom Bell) shows up uninvited, we learn that Fiona’s dapper husband-to-be is really a con man named William. And then, of course, anxiety builds as we wait for Leonard’s bad behavior to blow William’s fragile cover.
The film isn’t without its highlights. As his earlier shorts confirm, Mann does have a talent for getting solid work out of his actors. (Greenlight gave the impression that he does so by allowing them to improvise their way through multiple takes, with minimal direction.) Weeks proves a likable romantic lead in the ’90s Hugh Grant mold, though he’s probably best off sticking to light fare. Regan and Strong make the best of brittle, fairly inscrutable characters. Davison is thrilling to watch as an unhinged, old-money patriarch, even if his role doesn’t entirely cohere as written. But the movie’s true star is Tom Bell, who played the same part in Mann’s 2012 short film of the same name. Though perhaps a bit too reminiscent of Withnail and I‘s titular antihero, Leonard is a fun, mischievous, strange, sad character. Bell’s estimable improvisational skills are clearly on display, and he manages to make what could have been a merely annoying presence both endearing and captivating. If The Leisure Class launches one career, it should be his.
With the exceptions of Melanie Zanetti and Christine Lakin (remember her from Step by Step?), who can’t really be blamed because their characters are nothing more than restless virgin and whore-with-a-heart-of-gold tropes, the performances are all strong. And while the jarringly dark scene in which Edward tries to punish William and Leonard by making them strip down and do obscene things to each other in front of his wife and daughters belongs in a different movie, Bell, Davison, and Weeks play off each other so well that it provides most of the film’s few genuine laughs.
But none of the above is enough to save this movie from everything else that’s wrong with it. Rewrites and reshoots couldn’t prevent the story from feeling inconsequential, or make what was supposed to be a comedy particularly funny. As just about everyone who screened it in the season finale pointed out, the characters are thin. Even with substantial tweaking, Fiona’s motivations remain unclear; the other women, from Zanetti’s repressed, libidinous youngest Langston sister to Strong’s stately matriarch to Lakin’s bafflingly gratuitous prostitute, are even flimsier. William and Leonard’s relationship should form the emotional core of the movie, but we never learn enough about their background to become invested in it; the same goes for William and Fiona’s feelings for each other. As his friction with Effie Brown and other members of The Leisure Class crew also suggested, Mann doesn’t seem to quite grasp the intricacies of human interactions.
He’s also not as insightful about the wealthy, political milieu he’s supposed to be satirizing as he thinks he is, and that results in excessively expository, somewhat clichéd dialogue and characters we’ve seen before. (“My family grew up in what was the savagery of the forming of this country,” says Edward at one point.) Thankfully, there is a bit of a punch to the final turn of events, which suggests that a smalltime con man is no match for the moral bankruptcy of, ahem, the leisure class. It’s not a bad note to end on, but the realization is largely wasted in the rushed closing scenes of a movie whose first 75 minutes move far too slowly.
On the aesthetic front, Mann’s objections to shifting several night scenes into daytime or twilight turn out to have been well founded. He was also right about the car-crash stunt, which looks so bad that he and his editor should have found a way to excise it from the final cut. But these are minor flaws in comparison to the weak story and flat characters. Just because The Leisure Class’ script is probably superior to whatever hooker-marriage mess the Farrellys were hawking at the beginning of the season doesn’t mean it’s good. The most charitable thing that can be said about Jason Mann based on his first feature is that he has the potential to become a decent director… if learns how to collaborate and stops writing his own screenplays.
So, where does that leave us? Well, Project Greenlight has now produced four films in as many seasons, all of them failures. Despite the best — albeit conflicting — efforts of Effie Brown, Jason Mann, and apparently no one else involved (I still couldn’t tell you what Marc Joubert did, besides offering color commentary), The Leisure Class is just as bad as any of its predecessors. No one could be blamed for concluding that we’ll never see a great Project Greenlight movie, even if the show keeps running for as many seasons as, well, Project Runway has.
I don’t believe the film was a waste of time or money, though. The Leisure Class is among the worst movies I’ve seen this year, but it’s also among the most important. In marginalizing an experienced producer and painting her as an “angry black woman” while championing the deeply flawed auteurist vision of a stubborn, incommunicative, untested young white man, Project Greenlight and its product performed an invaluable service: They proved that the entertainment industry’s rampant racism and sexism don’t just make it hard for women and people of color to succeed in Hollywood — they can also lead to bad art.