Written by Matt Hansen
Starring Alison Pill, Gael Garcia Bernal, Mariana Ximenes
I sometimes get hung up on a movie’s core concept and weigh the entire film based on how much it lives up to its premise. I was disappointed in both Reservoir Dogs and The Departed at first—despite being well-directed, well-acted movies that tell an engaging story well, I was left wanting more tense cat-and-mouse games of an undercover cop evading suspicion, like you get in Donnie Brasco. Zoom leaves me with the same sense of want, and I’m not sure if that’s another miss on my part or not.
Some of the blame has to be laid on feet of Zoom‘s trailer, which sets up the film as a story of a comics character who becomes self-aware and lambasts his creator for manipulating his being. So, I figured this would be something along the lines of Stranger Than Fiction or Cool World. But the cross-dimensional first-contact happens so late in the film it’s more like The Neverending Story, where Bastian’s collaboration in the book he’s reading only happens at the climax.
What’s more, the trailer (and even the cover) exclude the existence of a third protagonist. Early on we meet body-insecure comics artist Emma, played as the consummate pathetic nerd by Alison Pill. Emma works in a sex doll factory, surrounded by ideal women’s bodies as literal sex objects, and she even draws herself as a superhero with a Jessica Rabbit rack. It’s equal parts sad and funny. Her body insecurity leads to the creation of protagonist número two: the impossibly cool Edward Deacon, a hip Hollywood director who has it all. He’s handsome, he has a sexy Spanish accent courtesy of sexy voice actor Gael García Bernal and—importantly—he’s well hung.
Emma and Edward have a great duality that revolves around body shame. She creates him as a take-that to a male coworker (who compares Emma unfavorably to her own super-stacked self-portrait), but Edward’s glamorous lifestyle inspires Emma to blow her savings on a boob job she instantly regrets, so she takes out her frustration by shrinking his penis.
And it all kind of works. It seems to be going somewhere. But then there’s Michelle, the secret third protagonist.
Michelle is a disenchanted model who aspires to be a novelist, so she leaves her boyfriend and jets to Brazil to uncork some inspiration from her homeland. Her story seems to come out of nowhere, and it takes quite awhile before it’s revealed that the novel she’s writing is Emma’s world. So then we settle into a three-tiered Inception structure, with Michelle writing about Emma who is drawing Edward. This plot point doesn’t come until about the beginning of the second act, but I don’t think its value as a twist is worth spending so much time wondering how Michelle fits into the story, so I don’t mind giving it away.
I will say, though, that while her purpose comes late, it helps click together why Michelle’s story is so damn boring compared to the idiosyncratic novel Emma lives in and the glamorous comic Edward occupies. And the film believably pulls off the trick of Michelle and Emma occupying different worlds visually as much as in content and character, despite lacking the obvious gimmick of Edward’s animated world. Emma’s world is filled with slightly caricatured characters, snappy dialogue, and flat comedic shots resembling an indie comedy aesthetic. Michelle’s world is comparatively drained of fun, populated by serious people, and the dominant view is a hand-held style and quick cuts we might expect from Paul Greengrass.
My main frustration with the story is that the connections across the three story levels are rarely concrete and plot-oriented, more of a connection of theme or subject than by interaction between the authors and their creators. For instance, you can see how Michelle’s issues with being judged as a physical ideal trickle down into Emma’s flat-chested insecurity. Or how Emma’s day job creating rubber dolls for horny men seeking empty perfection winds up in Edward’s story, where he looks for prosthetic solutions to please the women expecting perfection from his dick. But all the clever bits don’t really add up to a coherent plot.
On the whole, Edward’s story holds up the best because his A and B plots work together. Edward uses sex with his female producer to maintain control of the creative vision of his film; if he doesn’t resolve his teeny weenie problem, his film career is going down the toilet. By contrast, Emma’s comic is just something she does on the side. Her grotesque gag boobs are uncomfortably funny, but the plot to rid herself of them is totally unrelated to the daisy-chaining of authors and creations.
As much as anything, it’s the feeling that Emma’s plot is a diversion from the main story that leaves me empty. In a bit of meta-humor reminiscent of Adaptation, Emma’s story derails at the precise moment that Michelle is revealed to be her author, admitting she doesn’t know where to go with the story. As for Michelle, she’s totally focused on the main plot of trying to finish her novel, and unlike Emma or Edward she has no real driving A plot.
Quentin Tarantino made headlines by “honoring” Drive with a Nice Try Award in his 2011 wrap-up, and that made sense to me at the time. I loved Drive‘s overall style and certain parts of the movie, but it didn’t quite gel for me as a satisfying story. The same goes for Zoom. Despite not quite living up to its potential, there’s a lot to like about this film. Pill and Bernal are both great at selling the comedy of their situations, and it’s great to see a comedy so steeped in adult content that avoids resorting to a frat sensibility about how to mine humor out of it. But Michelle’s inclusion restructures the film into a weak mind-bender and it comes at the cost of the story. Which is probably why they left her out of the trailer.