As a general rule, film audiences couldn't care less about what goes into the making of a motion picture. They don't care about the budget, the shooting schedule, or the relationship between cast, crew and the production staff. All they care about is the film itself. Of course, since the ins and outs of production of "The Leisure Class" was revealed as part of the reality series, "Project Greenlight," the "behind the scenes" activity of this movie is of greater interest. The relationship between Jason Mann, the co-writer and director of this film, and Effie Brown, one of the line producers, has been a topic of much discussion. Was Jason Mann an auteur whose artistic vision was being compromised by a producer that was more concerned with completing the film on time and under budget? Or was Jason Mann simply an egoistical brat whose sense of entitlement far outweighed his talent?
Despite the challenges that the project faced, if "The Leisure Class" turned out to be a great film, all would be forgiven. Let's not forget that Francis Ford Coppola was almost fired as the director of "The Godfather," which turned out to be one of the greatest American films of all time.
On the other hand, if "The Leisure Class" is not a good film, the fault lies squarely with the director. While he didn't get everything he wanted (what filmmaker does?), he got way more than one would expect from a first time feature director. First of all, he got to do is own script as opposed to the script that was selected by the production. He also got the additional money to shoot it on film. Also, thanks to Ms. Brown, he even got an extra day of shooting to address some issues with the film. The film was budgeted in the $3 million range, while small compared to a major theatrical release, is significantly larger than the budgets for other first time directors. For example, "Short Term 12," Destin Daniel Cretton's award-winning film, was made for less than $1 million. Kimberly Peirce's "Boys Don't Cry" (which Mann inexplicably wanted to hire Pierce's co-writer as his writing partner on a comedy) was made for $2 million. "Pariah," a first feature by Dee Rees, won a cinematography award at Sundance despite being made for less than $500,000. Christopher Nolan made "Following" for significantly less (and it was shot on film!).
If "The Leisure Class" failed as a production it is not because the budget was too low or because one element (such as a stunt highlighted in "Project Greenlight") didn't work out quite as planned. If a film is compelling, an audience will overlook quite a bit. In most any first feature, one can find shortcomings and missteps, but if the filmmaker is talented, one can usually find some indication of that talent.
To his credit, Jason Mann knows where to place a camera and judging from "Project Greenlight," he appears to know his way around the set. Unfortunately, judging from "The Leisure Class," there is very little else to indicate that Jason Mann has any talent as a writer and director.
The biggest problem with the film is a lack of character development. This is particularly true of the female characters, who are mostly passive and appear to be there only to serve the men. Fiona is woefully underdeveloped and whose behavior is based on the dictates of the script without regard to logic. This is particularly troubling, because Fiona is the obvious access character to help audiences to care about what is going on. In general, the characters don't behave like living and breathing human beings.
Less of a problem, but still important, is a lack of a cohesive structure and narrative. Without a clear sense of direction, the whole film seems pointless.
The film also can't seem to decide if it's a dark comedy, farce or some sort of psychological drama. The result is an awkward mix of several genres.
Last, but not least, "The Leisure Class" is dull and humorless. It Nothing in this film was even remotely funny. It's as if the writers thought it was enough for people with British and high brow accents to say outrageous things to be funny. It's not. For example, when the butler says that someone has "defecated on the Bentley," it's obviously designed to be funny, but instead it just comes across as bizarre. The line also makes absolutely no sense within the context of the film.
Perhaps Jason Mann's experience here will lead to work as a journeyman or "gun for hire." But as an artist, there's absolutely no indication that he's a "Coppola" in the making. If his appearance on "Project Greenlight" is any indication, he places too great an importance on the "look" of the film and not enough on communicating with an audience.
Personally, when I look at a film, it matters little if it was shot digitally or on film. It can be in color or black and white. The image can be grainy, even out of focus at times. I can even tolerate uneven performances. If the story is intriguing and/or the characters are engaging, I can overlook a film's technical shortcomings. The aforementioned "Boys Don't Cry" was a prime example. More technically polished films have been made, but few have its emotional power.
Hopefully, "Project Greenlight" will revise their selection process in the future to promote filmmakers who actually have something compelling to say. The Sundance Institute which has had an excellent track record of nurturing compelling, modestly budgeted artist-driven films is perhaps the best example of a program that nurtures new talent. Over the years, Sundance has developed such diverse projects as "Real Women Have Curves" (which Effie Brown co-produced), "Requiem for a Dream," "Fruitvale Station," "Maria Full of Grace," "Paradise Now," "Love and Basketball," "Beasts of the Southern Wild," and "Boys Don't Cry."