James Franco's Insider-y SNL Doc Saturday Night Bows at Tribeca

The sold-out Tribeca Film Festival premiere of James Franco's documentary Saturday Night boasted at least two inconsistencies -- it screened on a Sunday afternoon in midtown Manhattan, some 70 blocks north of the fest's namesake neighborhood. But at least the film itself was unambiguous and even-handed. Mostly.

Franco is apparently the first filmmaker allowed behind the scenes to see how the Saturday Night Live sausage is made; the actor-director told the standing-room-only crowd that Lorne Michaels himself had declined the advances of no less than D.A. Pennebaker and Richard Leacock back in the '70s. (If only they had hosted the show on multiple occasions, I suppose.) And what results is in fact a sort of Maysles-esque, fly-on-the-wall, observational documentary intercut with curious little vanity snippets: Franco getting his LOLZ on with Bill Hader in his dressing room, or Franco having a relaxed, surface-level chat with an SNL producer or a more strained discussion with Michaels himself. When the show's creator hints that the atmosphere on set has changed during the week that Franco and Co. have been filming in and around studio 8A, Franco asks, "So you're saying maybe we're not not getting the full experience?"

That's exactly what Michaels was saying -- not in as many words, nor did he really need to. The full experience is no doubt more boring. Funny, but boring. From the pitch meeting where guest host John Malkovich is introduced to the staff to the all-night writing session that yield 50 sketches (less than 10 of which make the air), Saturday Night never fully comes to terms with its most bracing revelation: Comedy is grueling and, even at this level, profoundly unglamorous work. "You learn to live in a haze," Will Forte says of his whacked-out nights of an hour (or less) of sleep. That haze envelops more than just the cast, as staff writers, set designers and everyone else in SNL's orbit labor with almost scientific fervor for days on end.

As a workplace doc, Saturday Night really is something else. I'd almost rather see a guy like Daniel Kraus -- whose stunning observational job films Sheriff, Musician and Professor have a more mainstream edge over the job-movie maestro Frederick Wiseman's own, expansive approach -- turned loose on this subject. I wanted someone to flesh out the bursts of austerity Franco introduces in scenes like the four-hour table reading or the rehearsal of Hader's Vinny Vedecci segment with Malkovich. Franco even acknowledged in the post-screening Q&A that following Hader alone was one of his original ideas. Based on the presence, talent and creativity the actor displays here, maybe Comic wouldn't be such a bad follow-up.

One especially striking segment follows Casey Wilson, the erstwhile SNL-er whose song-and-dance number at the table reading bombs as soon as it starts. Franco stays with her; he will wring cinematic lemonade out of Wilson's catastrophic sketch-comedy lemons. But it's her candor after the fact than stuns, even stings, because you can basically see her crack. Look at it this way: The average creative mind is not built to withstand the knowledge that futility is a mathematical rule 80 percent of the time. Like, it's not even as though her work will go back to the drawing board. It's dead, and unlike the freaks of nature who appear to make up the rest of the SNL braintrust, Wilson's hints of vulnerability seem to have made her just enough of a target to be expendable. Risk just can't be that big a pill to swallow in this atmosphere, no matter how poorly you fare any given week.

Pages: 1 2