On Thursday night, when I made my way to a Times Square theater to see Woody Harrelson’s livestreamed movie Lost in London, I felt myself hoping that something would go wrong. Maybe Woody would flub a few lines somewhere in the nearly two-hour set piece, which was being filmed live in a single take. Maybe a camera operator would trip, compromising the single camera that was transmitting Harrelson’s misadventures to theaters across America. Maybe one of the cars, used in the film’s smattering of chase scenes, would make a wrong turn and the project would grind to a halt, actually lost in London. Shouldn’t you want every live event to fail in at least one small, but obvious, way? It certainly makes for a better story.
So I regret to report that Woody Harrelson’s two-hour screwball adventure through the streets of London went pretty well. There were a few flubbed lines, minutes on end when the sound wasn’t right, and one or two scenes where the actors’ timing was off. But for the most part, Lost in London was pretty much what you would expect from any Woody Harrelson joint: shaggily competent, self-effacing, and as earnest as a stoner’s musing at 4 a.m., which was about the time in London when the livestream ended.
As the text on the screen at the beginning of Lost in London informs the audience, “too much of this is true.” The film is based on a bad night Harrelson had in 2002, during which he was arrested for trashing a taxi cab. The night begins as Harrelson, playing himself, leaves a performance of a poorly attended West End play, grousing about how he’s tired of performing dramas. He gets in a fight with his wife, Laura (Eleanor Matsuura). He heads off to a club where he runs into Owen Wilson (yes, the actual Owen Wilson). As you might expect, the night quickly starts to unravel, as Woody tries to make it home to his kids in time to take them to the Harry Potter set, encountering a furious cab driver, an earnest Irish cop, and Willie Nelson, playing himself and plucking a guitar.
As a technical achievement, Lost in London is pretty astounding. The action moves between 14 real-life locations, requiring the hundreds of people in the cast and crew to hit their marks seamlessly while the footage streamed into hundreds of theaters across the world. Single-take films, such as Victoria, have been shot before, but Lost in London had to get everything right live. It was less a movie than a stage show, or perhaps most like a live-TV spectacle — Grease: Live minus the songs, plus the challenge of navigating an actual metropolis. Often, you could hear drivers honking in frustration in background, which at first gave the film a charming verisimilitude, and then just became annoying — especially in the final scene on the Waterloo Bridge, where the actors’ voices had to compete with wind and traffic.
In a Q&A, also live, that streamed into the theater after the film, Harrelson said that he came up with the idea for the film after reflecting on his own terrible night in London. “They say that tragedy plus time equals comedy,” he said, clearly worn out and needing some prompting to remember that equation. “Even though it was a night I really did not enjoy, I thought, ‘This could be funny.’” Lost in London, on its face, is simply a good yarn. But that would ignore the fact that Woody Harrelson, a well-known celebrity, is the guy telling the story, and that it largely ends up being a story about celebrity — the ways it makes life easy or hard, or mostly just surreal. Woody tries to get into a club by singing the Cheers them, which the bouncer does not recognize. When trying to win over a cop, Woody stages a phone call to Bono (Bono’s voice was prerecorded). While bickering with Owen Wilson, he insults Marley and Me and, to Wilson’s great consternation, Wes Anderson. Woody always has the money and fame to get out of trouble, but that also makes it easier for him to get into it.
Amid the stunts and the car chases, Lost in London meditates on the peculiar Tao of Woody, a guy famous mainly because he seems so ordinary, and because of that, is not ordinary at all. Before the livestream began, the theater rolled clips of Woody’s famous friends telling him just how terrible his idea for a livestreamed movie was. The joke: Of course he’s going to actually try to make his stoner yarn into an actual thing, and of course he’s going to have the talent and means to do it well. Or simply: What kind of monster would try to stop Woody Harrelson?