“You ask anybody about their favorite SNL cast, and almost every time it's the cast that was on when that person was in junior high,” says Saturday Night Live writer/producer Steve Higgins, offering one of the more candid interviews in James Franco's 2010 documentary Saturday Night. Indeed, the old “it's not as good as it used to be!” complaints have dogged SNL for decades now, and I suspect it's largely because we're examining the show's history through rose-colored glasses. We remember all of the great sketches and iconic moments, but forget that nearly every episode of the show contains its share of bland, forgettable filler. Watching that filler in the present, it's easy to think that the show has lost its touch. The truth of the matter is that SNL has almost always been an unwieldly behemoth of a comedy show: too long, too safe, too repetitive, usually fun, occasionally brilliant.
Despite the show's hit-and-miss nature, SNL has managed to remain culturally relevant for the entirety of its run: affecting the public image of political figures, creating a host of comedy superstars and eternally keeping its finger on the pulse of pop culture. The show's history and creative process have been well-documented by various writers, most memorably in the absorbing, revealing book Live from New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live, as Told By Its Stars, Writers and Guests. This creates a problem for Saturday Night, which struggles to find things we haven't already seen or we don't already know.
Franco has hosted SNL on numerous occasions, but his documentary covers the week-long creation of a 2010 episode hosted by John Malkovich. Franco is given access to every key member of the cast and crew, and we get a glimpse of every step of the process: rough ideas being pitched on Monday, sketches being crafted on Tuesday, table reads of proposed sketches on Wednesday, etc. There's some funny stuff here and there, because of course there is: we're talking about a room of people that includes Malkovich, Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Will Forte, Jason Sudeikis, Kenan Thompson, Steve Higgins, John Mulaney, Casey Wilson, Seth Meyers, Andy Samberg, Bobby Moynihan and a host of other talented folks. One table read of a sketch involving Forte as an aggressive commercial director is hysterical, mostly due to the fact that every person at the table is doubling over while Forte remains firmly in character.
Unfortunately, Franco isn't up to the task of placing his moderately interesting backstage footage in a compelling context. He doesn't seem to have much knowledge of the history of the show, or at least much interest in it. He offers backstage interviews built on banal questions about whether it's challenging to make people laugh, where people find inspiration for their jokes and what part of the creative process is most demanding. Worse, sometimes Franco just gets self-indulgently sloppy, leaving in bits and pieces of footage that he liked even though it has nothing to do with the topic at hand (usually, this footage involves SNL cast members making jokes at Franco's expense).
Frustratingly, a large portion of the footage presented in Saturday Night looks and sounds lousy, as Franco shot much of the movie on a cheap camera with an equally cheap microphone. Franco's cinema verite approach to the proceedings often means letting the camera wander aimlessly, perhaps in the hope that it will eventually pick up an artful or intriguing image. Unfortunately, these visual choices usually prove frustrating rather than illuminating.
The best moment in the documentary is a brief interview with Casey Wilson, who pitches a parody of Chicago that falls completely flat (we see Malkovich look away and start eating a snack). “I wanted to crawl under the table,” Wilson admits, saying that she didn't realize how bad her idea was until she actually started performing it for everyone in the room. She works hard to pull the sketch together, lays it out there and falls flat on her face. That's undoubtedly something that happens a lot at SNL (roughly 4/5ths of the sketches pitched get rejected), and there's an interesting documentary to be made about all of the aborted ideas that are a necessary part of the show's creative process. Unfortunately, that's not a documentary James Franco was interested in making. Saturday Night is a reasonably engaging watch if you're a fan of the show, but it's a pity that 90% of it is generic fluff presented with film school amateurishness.
Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 95 minutes
Release Year: 2010