“The Pretenders” Premiere at Palace October 5th Seduces Only to Mislead

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There was excitement in the air at the Palace Theatre on Saturday, October 5th, as the American premiere of James Franco’s film “The Pretenders” graced the screen. Notable due to its filming in the capital region, including outside of the Palace’s Theatre, “The Pretenders” promised to tell a story about relationships. Flawed and openly taking an unbalanced male view of relationship, the film struggled to find its footing.

Originally premiering at the Torino Film Festival in 2018, the film made its US premiere at our own Palace Theatre. The audience was filled with an assortment of different aged viewers, many of whom were dressed up as if attending a west coast premiere.

The flaws were, at the very least, distracting from the overall message that people tend to pretend rather than connect authentically in relationship with others. At the very worst, the film could be described as misogynistic.

The story centers on a trio of friends played by Jane Levy (Catherine), Shameik Moore (Phil), and Jack Kilmer (Terry) who struggle to negotiate relationships with one another. The men, while good friends, fall in love with the beautiful Catherine. In the process, all three try on personas to connect with each other, only to learn that true attachment requires integrity.

After a slow start, some of the early flaws emerged as troubling. The film’s story relied upon dates being shared on the screen to fill gaps in the story’s timeline. Often the dates shared seemed to inaccurately match what was observed in the film’s setting and plot. In 1979, a neon sign for a beer hanging behind the characters inaccurately represented a light beer that wouldn’t be released for another 26 years. During a scene from 1983, a character referenced a Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire” that wasn’t released until 1984.

Something felt not quite right.

These minor mistakes belied a laziness in the film’s work that was also betrayed in some of the dialogue and plot’s arc. Because so much of the film required the audience to suspend disbelief, the lack of integrity and credibility in these details made that trust from the audience hard to earn.

Other mistakes included characters appearing to know more about each other than told upon introduction; how did James Franco’s character, for example, know that Phil and Terry were college roommates after being told they were old friends?

And then there is this intense, passionate idea about romantic love that lacks true connection. Very quickly, the men fall for Catherine based upon her appearance. After seeing her once, they obsess upon her, making guesses at who she is and try to find her again. And the men’s love of the female lead emerges as a reflection not of who she really is, but of who they project her to be. Because as the film progresses, it becomes very clear that neither knows her at all.

Perhaps the best scene in the film is when Terry’s classmates in a film seminar call him out on putting his female character in a film assignment on a pedestal rather than doing the hard work of discovering who she really is. This honest feedback almost feels like someone gave James Franco the exact same advice, but he ignored it and continued regardless.

Also distracting from the film includes the fact that James Franco, who is here making his debut as a director, was in the news this week due to allegations that his acting school took advantage of young female actors in his “Sex Scenes” class. Even if viewers wanted to forget Franco’s real life drama, “The Pretenders” multiple sex scenes and focus on the female as an object during those scenes made it almost impossible to disconnect from the allegations that he abused his power in relationship with younger women.

There were some good moments, though, worth noting. Moore’s eyes betray the moment Phil falls in love with Catherine, and when he attempts to sleep with her, even though it is unethical, somehow you want to forgive him. Likewise, when Levy late in the story pretends not to recognize her spoken language (or her old lover), her face briefly forsakes the truth that she was hiding with a ripple of emotion that she quickly blocks.

The acting saves the film, really, from being a disappointment. And the idea that humans bump up against what others pretend to be, rather than truly attaching, is worth considering.

The explanation of why Catherine can’t attach comes late in the film and again is told from a male perspective (her pseudo foster father). “The Pretenders” uses a male lens to explore this issue that could have easily taken a much more interesting turn if the story had been told from the female lead’s perspective, or at least included that perspective among its lenses.

But it didn’t. It did highlight a few local locations that brought cheers from the crowd. Unfortunately, the jeers at the film’s close drowned out any applause.

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