James Franco, in one of his many varied adventures, teaches students at UCLA. As part of his class, he produced and acted in a feature film directed by and created by his students. The piece they chose to adapt is a book of short stories by Robert Boswell, a former teacher of Franco's, called The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards. The 39th Atlanta Film Festival presented the world premiere of this unusual film, which has a very large cast including Kristen Wiig, Kate Mara, Rico Rodriguez, Natalie Portman, and many more in its many parts.
The film is made up of seven sections which share no characters, setting, time period, or even tone. In between these segments is great 16mm footage of family movies, usually with soothing piano music.The first, Winter Walk, follows Franco's character as he returns to the town he grew up in to identify the possible remains of his mother who has been missing since his childhood. Next is Guests, starring Rico Rodriguez as a child in the 50's who moves to a new school and who's father (Matthew Modine) is suffering a potentially fatal disease at home. Third is Miss Famous, easily the most comedic piece, which stars Kristen Wiig as a maid in modern L.A. who daydreams about ways her dull life could bring her celebrity. Almost Not Beautiful follows Kate Mara as she visits her eccentric rehab-recovering sister (Amber Tamblyn), while Lacunae examines Paul (Jim Parrack) who visits his father who has had a stroke and sees his exwife (Natalie Portman) who's child may be his only son. Smoke sees three teen boys in perhaps the 60's as they swap made up tales of sexual conquest, and last, the self-titled Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards, sees a college dropout fall in love but continue to have his selfishness cause problems–like accidental murder.
With two exceptions (Miss Famous and Smoke), most of the stories are pessimistic, and some are downright depressing. It's an odd film because there is so little connection between the seven parts, and you really have to dig to find how they attempt to work together to achieve some kind of overall tone. Many of the stories deal with loss, whether this is literal in the sense of the death or illness of a family member, or in terms of the disintegration of a past relationship. There is a sense of nostalgia with the whole film, but in many cases this nostalgia is bitter and tinged with regret.
Although it doesn't really fit the tone of the rest of the movie, Miss Famous is probably the highlight of the movie: Wiig is, as usual, hilarious as she ruminates how finding a letter in the bathroom trashcan of the house she's cleaning might bring her a book deal. The comedic timing is great here, and the scene opposite Jimmy Kimmel as the obnoxious business man who awkwardly tries to eat lunch with her is particularly fun. Smoke is also very good, and recalls great coming of age stories like Stand by Me.
There are some really nice moments in a few of the stories, but taking the movie as a whole is somewhat more difficult. The individual segments would almost all work very well as shorts–some might even hold up to a feature length story–but as a whole there just doesn't seem to be a lot of cohesiveness. While I understand that the format of the film is largely due to the circumstances of its production, the disjointed nature of Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards is kind of hard to forgive. Unfortunately, this is a case where the parts do not add up to a entirely satisfying whole.