Screen Test

Matt Damon dents his Mr Nice Guy image in HBO docu series Project Greenlight

Oscar winners Ben Affleck (left) and Matt Damon (right) mentored Project Greenlight winner Jason Mann as he directed his first film, The Leisure Class.
Oscar winners Ben Affleck (left) and Matt Damon (right) mentored Project Greenlight winner Jason Mann as he directed his first film, The Leisure Class.PHOTO: HBO ASIA
Oscar winners Ben Affleck and Matt Damon mentored Project Greenlight winner Jason Mann (above) as he directed his first film, The Leisure Class.
Oscar winners Ben Affleck and Matt Damon mentored Project Greenlight winner Jason Mann (above) as he directed his first film, The Leisure Class.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Project Greenlight shows how even Oscar winners can make mistakes in choosing talent, resulting in a two-star film titled The Leisure Class

Ever watched a film helmed by a director everyone seems to love, only to be left wondering how mediocre movies like that get made at all?

Project Greenlight is a gripping, thought-provoking docu-series about the making of one such film, The Leisure Class. It is a four-star show about a two-star movie, a paradox that proves that failure is often more interesting than success.

The Leisure Class director, Jason Mann, won the contest that is Project Greenlight, beating 5,000 aspiring film-makers to be mentored by Oscar winners Ben Affleck and Matt Damon as he directed his first film.

  • PROJECT GREENLIGHT

    HBO GO/HBO On Demand on StarHub Go; marathon screening of entire series on HBO Signature (StarHub TV Channel 603), on Saturday from noon

    4/5 stars

  • THE LEISURE CLASS

    HBO GO/HBO On Demand on StarHub Go

    2/5 stars

How Mann is selected is the first big flashpoint in the unexpectedly controversial show, which has generated a lively debate about the entrenched racial and gender biases in Hollywood and whether privileged white males are inherently blind to it all.

The drama starts in Episode 1 with a rare public misstep by Damon, whose nice-guy image has taken a hit after he appeared to suggest to Effie Brown, a black female producer, that there is no need for racial or gender diversity behind the camera.

Brown wanted a directing duo comprised of an Asian man and a Caucasian woman to win the contest, whereas Damon and most of the other judges believe Mann is the most talented.

They get their way and Mann wins, despite misgivings from fellow judge and Dumb And Dumber (1994) director Peter Farrelly, who senses the young upstart is arrogant and not at all keen on the script he has been given.

True enough, as soon as he wins, Mann begins his demands and eventually convinces the judges to let him direct a satirical comedy he wrote himself, The Leisure Class.

In the episodes that follow, Mann repeatedly clashes with Brown, the producer responsible for making sure the film - which is being financed and aired by the cable channel HBO - finishes on time and on budget.

This clash becomes the main drama of Project Greenlight, with fans and commentators arguing heatedly over who is in the wrong.

Was it Mann, for being an inflexible, entitled and clueless director who digs in his heels on every call, thus putting the film in a time crunch that he then blames on Brown?

Or is it Brown who heartlessly crushes Mann's directorial vision, which everyone else seems to praise constantly? And is she over-reacting when she flips out after Mann goes behind her back to persuade Affleck and HBO to let him shoot on film instead of digitally, the more practical option?

The series is edited in such a way as to leave some epistemological doubt. Mann, Brown and the other film-makers have since argued that a lot of context and nuance was left on the cutting-room floor to hype up the drama.

Which may be true, but it seems pretty clear the series is nudging the viewer towards sympathising with Brown and has no shortage of material to draw from.

For one thing, her increasingly weary voice of reason is often shown to be vindicated, whether she is telling Mann his nitpicking on the location will cost them dearly down the line or that the female lead, Fiona, is underdeveloped as a character. Mann ignores this, but is later forced to do a rewrite and reshoot to fix it when test audiences and HBO agree with her.

In showing how Brown is often dismissed and undercut - and feels the need to soften her critiques by telling Damon and others she is speaking "with love in my heart" - Project Greenlight offers a glimpse of the hidden barriers women and minorities face daily and which the Damons and Manns of the world often remain blissfully unaware of.

But the most powerful argument against Mann ends up being the resulting film, The Leisure Class. Visually, it looks polished enough and the viewer is given to understand, from all the gushing, that this is a big technical achievement given the time and budget.

The story, though, falls flat. The Mindy Project's Ed Weeks plays William, a suave Englishman who has conned his way into the bosom of a politically ambitious Connecticut family he is about to marry into. All hell breaks loose, though, when brother Leonard (Tom Bell) arrives on the eve of his wedding to Fiona (Jane The Virgin's Bridget Regan).

With Leonard embarrassing him and threatening to expose his identity, things come to a head that night after an incident involving Fiona's sister, which then exposes the family's dark side.

The set-up recalls Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988), in which Steve Martin and Michael Caine play duelling conmen, or the nuptial-weekend high jinks of Wedding Crashers (2005), but unlike those movies, this suffers from being profoundly unfunny.

For a comedy of manners, it is remarkably satire-free, with virtually nothing to say about how the other half lives, other than having characters with vaguely defined social and political ambitions.

The bawdy and scatological humour is more apparent, but lacklustre and random, as when Leonard defecates on a car.

The chemistry between Weeks and Bell is an embarrassingly weak example of the biting British banter it is so obviously meant to channel - in fact, it is hard to see the point of the brothers being non-American at all, unless gratuitous Englishness is supposed to be funny in and of itself.

Each of these flaws is magnified if you have watched Project Greenlight and seen Mann obsess over technical details while ignoring advice to fix the characters. It is a harsh light to shine on any director, let alone a first-timer, which then begs the question of whether he was hung out to dry.

But do not feel too sorry for the guy. As a postscript to the show, he has now been signed by the talent agency that represents Damon and Affleck, while Brown says she is no longer on good terms with Damon and another producer involved - an outcome that would take a whole other series to explain.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 04, 2015, with the headline 'Masterclass in wrong decisions'. Print Edition | Subscribe