Thursday 4 May 2017

Watching the wild life: "Lost in London"

In January of this year, Lost in London became the first film to be beamed live into cinemas worldwide - which is to say it was being filmed, in one single, uninterrupted, 103-minute take, as it was being watched, a landmark in cultural immediacy that spoke to the giant leaps forward made in outside broadcast and digital exhibition technology in recent times. Reviewers in situ on the night in question noted both the considerable logistical achievement involved and that this was a tightrope walk only a truly emboldened creative might attempt: in this case, the actor-turned-writer/director Woody Harrelson, channelling one of those Hunger Games paycheques into a passion project that strived to turn a small measure of true-life turmoil into spontaneous-seeming entertainment. 

In the summer of 2002, and in the middle of what was a comparatively fallow period for his career, Harrelson came to the UK to star in a West End production of John Kolvenbach's play On An Average Day; after one performance, he embarked upon a boozy night on the tiles in the company of Leonardo diCaprio and Tobey Maguire - then still very much in their "Pussy Posse" phase of development - and wound up in a police cell after an altercation with a taxi driver over a broken ashtray. In the retelling of the incident offered here, form and content come to align: as with last year's single-take sensation Victoria, this is a film about characters flying by the seat of their pants made by people flying by the seat of their pants.

I saw Lost in London this week at the first of a planned series of encore screenings, and the biggest compliment I can pay it is that there is a film up on screen to see: Harrelson, his cast and crew made it from their designated startpoint to the end of the script, and completed a project they could legitimately invite paying punters to shell out for. The film doesn't look markedly more rushed or impromptu than anything else around, and you soon forget about the novelty of watching a film composed in one go. What's been preserved is a particular moment in time, a long cold night in something like exile, and with the "liveness" reducing the level of mediation between director and audience, Lost in London does convey a mood of woozy disorientation: as the evening drags on, and the characters (and actors) start running on fumes, so too does the movie.

Ultimately, though, this energy-sap proves a mixed blessing: it worked rather better for a knife-edge drama like Victoria - where you were left wondering how on earth everybody involved was going to get through the night - than it does for a putative comedy such as this. Granted, Harrelson now has the distance to attempt sweetly funny, self-deprecating jokes about this/his midlife crisis: with diCaprio and Maguire otherwise engaged, he recruits Owen Wilson to serve as his own personal Jiminy Cricket/Sancho Panza, which occasions a few cinephile-friendly snipes at Wilson's regular employer Wes Anderson (Movie Woody finds Anderson's movies "precious", so we know he hasn't taken complete leave of his senses); the drinking prompts an instance of Farrellian projectile vomiting; and it's telling that Movie Woody is eventually arrested after a low-octane chase through a children's playground.

Viewed as a feature-length proposition and not merely some logistical caprice, however, the film proves at least as gruelling as it is amusing. Shooting around the capital's backstreets after dark may have been desirable for the producers - trying to dodge the traffic on the main thoroughfares, and get everybody into place to hit their marks - but it proves far less so for the audience. Even in the club scenes, there's never any brightness or warmth coming off the screen, so all the squabbling, bickering and meandering that plays within the half-hour chunks of Curb Your Enthusiasm and Louie just comes over as wearying here. (I stepped out of the cinema desperate for a good night's sleep - and that was after a 3pm screening.) 

Harrelson, for his part, comes out of Lost in London as a greatly more likable, versatile and ambitious (not to mention uxorious) figure than his participation in, say, Semi-Pro would suggest. (That he has grown as both a performer and a man over the past decade-and-a-half had already been evident from his fun turn in last year's The Edge of Seventeen, where he could play a teacher without it seeming like a stretch.) Yet you emerge from this long night's journey into day nagged by the thought its primary creative force may be asking for a little too much credit simply for having survived this walk on the wild side - both fifteen years ago, and in the rather draggy hundred-odd minutes here.

Lost in London plays in selected cinemas from tomorrow.     

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