The Leisure Class is many things, but never once a coherent or good film. Jason Mann’s HBO feature is a tonal and narrative mess, one that does a disservice to talented pieces to produce a cringe-worthy whole. It is a shining example that no matter how strong a cast and crew are, without a solid script, nothing will work.
Full disclosure: This review comes from being almost entirely disconnected from the film’s origin in Project Greenlight. Except for half-watching 30 minutes of the show’s fourth season finale the night beforehand, I had no preconceived notions or information about the content of the film. Yes, I heard about Damon’s diversity controversy and vague talk of conflict in the show, but never saw any footage save those few minutes of the final episode. I knew that The Leisure Class was an HBO film thanks to billboards around Los Angeles, but did not realize it was the Project Greenlight film.
The film’s main problem is its story. Or more accurately, how the script executes the premise, which actually is quite solid. Charlie (Ed Weeks) is a successful nonprofit organizer about to be married to Fiona (Bridget Regan), the ambitious daughter of a wealthy, very WASPy family headed by a senator (Bruce Davison). On the night of their engagement party, the hyper Leonard (Tom Bell) shows up with a secret: Charlie is actually a conman named William, and also Leonard’s brother. That’s actually a solid premise. It’s the kind of idea that could create a classic screwball comedy or a rather dark thriller.
Instead, The Leisure Class is a slog of a film, with a meandering plot, unengaging characters, and a feeling that two different scripts were stitched together. As good as the conman plot is, Mann’s script (co-written with Pete Jones) never focuses on William and his motivations, leaving the protagonist passive in a story driven by his own activity. The cast is made up of strong actors who clearly are struggling to do something with thinly drawn characters. Regan’s Fiona is particularly without much to do, leaving an unformed character despite the actress’s attempts to define her via body language. It makes much of the second half of the film not work when Fiona is forced to take center stage.
And then there’s Leonard. He’s clearly meant to be the blithe spirit, the care-free individual who shakes the stuffy WASPs out of their repressed lives and into an epiphany. Bell has the energy for the role, but he never stops being fully manic. Leonard’s antics tire quickly, partly from that overdone hyperness and partly because they quickly move from offbeat and quirky to annoying, random, and quite frankly stupid. It also doesn’t help that a few other main characters, chief among them Fiona’s shy younger sister (Melanie Zanetti), are written solely to play off Leonard. A party scene midway through the film is so dry of humor despite a clear attempt that it’s hard not to scream at the characters for listening to Leonard’s absurd and idiotic ideas.
The film’s one bright spot is when William’s con is exposed and the film gets dark. Taken to a basement and threatened at gunpoint to do extreme acts by Davison’s character, The Leisure Class flirts with being a kind of B-level black comedy horror film anchored by a veteran character actor, the kind of stuff perfect for late night viewings. It’s a rare moment in the film where the actors get to take the forefront and drive the action rather than play second fiddle to the meandering story. Of course, that fades quickly as poorly set-up family drama takes over and random sexist rants come out of nowhere. By that point, the film becomes mostly incoherent, a late-introduced prostitute gets character development the others don’t, and many seemingly important plot points and characters are dropped.
Not helping matters is the fact that Mann’s direction is lackluster at best. He does nothing to elevate the script or really dive into the film’s many different tones. The only time he seems to make The Leisure Class into something stylistic is when he steps back and lets the actors take over. The early improvisation between Weeks and Bell flows in a light and engaging way, making the reveal as engaging as it is. And Davison’s dark turn works because Mann lets the actor be the focus, rather than constant cuts or interactions. Mann throws in some visual touches that shine — a tracking shot through the mansion involving a pillow fight is memorable — but they feel so rare, and deployed in pointless moments that they do nothing to make up for otherwise generic and weak staging.
One of the odder elements of The Leisure Class is that it isn’t long. It’s only 85 minutes. But it feels like a two-hour film. For a movie filled with a dozen plot twists and a character brought to life with as much energy as Bell’s Leonard, the story meanders and there’s never a sense of momentum. It could be the editing, but the fault is likely more in Mann’s execution of his own script.
The Leisure Class isn’t an all-around travesty. There’s clearly talent involved. The cast does the best it can with bad material, and even Mann shows moments of visual cleverness. But that talent is wasted by being put to the task of acting out a tepid, incoherent script. Without even a decent base to work with, the film falls apart before it can even get going. By the time the credits roll, any momentum or enthusiasm stopped far earlier.
Nicholas Slayton is a journalist and writer who has contributed to the Atlantic, io9, Comics Bulletin and more. You can follow him on Twitter @NSlayton