Eye-opening, it’s not. James Franco’s “reimagining” of the 40 minutes of explicit material cut from William Friedkin’s Cruising arrives heavy with baggage, little of which turns out to be relevant to the movie at hand. Interior. Leather Bar. is less what it claims to be than an inside-out investigation of the “Franco’s doing a gay-porn movie” buzz that surrounded the project, and the process of filming itself. It follows a scattered-seeming Franco and his more on-point co-director Travis Mathews putting their project together while their star Val Lauren (as the Al Pacino character) tries to suss out exactly what the filmmakers are up to. During one of the film’s several scenes of discussion about what they’re making, Lauren tries to make his nervousness clear to Franco, noting that Pacino at least had a script to work with. “Fuck scripts,” is the reply from Franco, distracted by his phone.
The “reimagining” is the subject of much conversation, but little true engagement. The missing Cruising footage has never been publicly screened. But it’s believed to have comprised explicitly sexual scenes cut to avoid an X rating. In what looks like a one-day, pseudo-guerrilla shoot, Franco and Mathews gather a band of actors to recreate Friedkin’s scenes in the New York leather bars which Pacino’s cop infiltrates to catch a serial killer. In what little finished fragments that they let flicker through into their encounter-group narrative, the prowling, pulsing blue-metal mood and mechanistic (though anachronistic) music looks right, and the seeding in of real sex scenes makes for a seamless reinterpretation of what Friedkin might have intended.
Making less sense, though, is the reason behind it all. Even at a short 60 minutes, Interior. Leather Bar. feels stretched thin. The earnest but half-baked school-seminar theorizing that Franco occasionally throws in about queer theory and mainstream society’s imposition of normative values is all well and good, but it’s hardly addressed in the film that follows. There is little discussion of anything else about Cruising besides the cut footage or any attempt to deal with the larger issues of a brutal, troubling, haunting film that remains controversial and little seen today, even in its R-rated version.
The more that Franco talks and Lauren frets, the more obvious it becomes that the film’s intellectual structure is thinly conceived at best. For films that had less of an unfinished thesis project scent to them, that would not matter. But in a film where the closest thing that comes to a story is Lauren’s nervous journey as a straight, married man into this exploration of the limits of his comfort. He worries about what effect this might have on his career. A voice on Lauren’s phone (agent, manager, or friend, it’s hard to tell) throws out a gay slur and his wife continually teases him about whether she’ll need to act differently in bed from then on.
What becomes clear not long into this project, though, is that these moments of off-the-cuff conversation are likely as scripted as everything happening in the club-scene shoot itself aren’t. Franco and Lauren could well be playing the characters of “James Franco” and “Val Lauren”; one the arrogant, big-talk movie star (“the gays are going to be titillated”) and the other an earnestly striving actor who worries he’s being taken advantage of.
Interior. Leather Bar. contains the germ of an idea that could have made something memorable. It has a compelling vision of this odd little corner of Hollywood, where a band of earnest performers come together to try and create something they don’t comprehend but want to be a part of. But it dodges nearly every moment where something actually revelatory could have happened. It’s one thing to entice performers and an audience with the tease of involving a Hollywood heartthrob in some scandalously transgressive and sexually explicit project before yanking the rug out from under them. It’s something else entirely to have little else to offer when the tease is revealed for what it is.