Built upon a movie-history footnote, "Interior. Leather Bar." is an hourlong provocation from directors James Franco and Travis Mathews — a cheerfully unsettling exploration of mainstream representations of male homosexuality.
Their jumping-off point is William Friedkin's controversial 1980 murder mystery, "Cruising," in which Al Pacino's undercover cop entered a lurid pre-AIDS club scene in Manhattan's pre-gentrification Meatpacking District. Friedkin, who filmed actual club patrons' "activities in their entirety," has said he cut 40 minutes to avoid an X rating and subsequently lost that footage.
Franco and Mathews' ostensible mission was to reimagine the missing material. But with less than a quarter of screen time devoted to unsimulated sex — both S&M-tinged; and loving-couple tender — most of their film is talk, smart and engaging.
The directors have shaped and scripted "documentary" scenes that place a lot within winking quotes. For the most part, that serves their earnest critique of conformity in an age of gay assimilation. Their shaken-and-stirred mix of fiction and nonfiction revolves around the making of "Leather Bar" and the ambivalent participation of actor Val Lauren, playing the Pacino character — or rather, playing Val Lauren playing the Pacino character, who in turn is a cop playing a gay man.
As Sal Mineo in Franco's "Sal," Lauren voiced the director's ideas on the need for more evolved screen depictions of homosexuals. Here, he convincingly plays devil's advocate in quiet, compelling debates with Franco — or rather, "Franco," celebrity instigator of a meta-porn inquiry that most of the cast doesn't quite get.
The movie-within-the-movie's seeming pointlessness is a running joke, and sometimes a problem. Unfocused lapses aside, though, the film is intriguing and discomforting in equal measure, using its brief running time to frame thoughtful, boundary-pushing questions.
— Sheri Linden
'Interior. Leather Bar.'
No MPAA rating
Running time: 1 hour
Playing: Cinefamily, Los Angeles