Having hated Mike Figgis's Leaving Las Vegas, I had my prejudices walking into this film, though I admit that the gimmick behind it is intriguing. In fact, the gimmick is the only interesting thing about it: Timecode's screen is divided into four quadrants, each one displaying a single, unedited take from a handheld video camera. All four cameras are synchronized.
And what are these cameras filming? Actors improvising. And it goes on for over 90 minutes. No edits. No cuts. A three-ring (or in this case four-ring) circus before your very eyes. Surprisingly, it's not as nauseating as you'd expect. The camera movement is fluid, and Figgis cleverly adjusts the audio mix so that you rarely hear what's going on in more than one quadrant at a time, preventing sensory overload.
In the middle of all this high concept frippery is the skeleton of a story, centered around four people: Stellan Skarsgård as an alcoholic film executive, Saffron Burrows (Figgis's real-life sweetie) as his estranged wife, Salma Hayek as his bisexual mistress, and Jeanne Tripplehorn as her jealous girlfriend. This quartet is surrounded by a dozen or so wacky Hollywood types, consisting of a strong cast of familiar faces (including Holly Hunter and Kyle MacLachlan).
So what happens? Well, not much. Which is Timecode's main problem: the story is as shallow as a cookie sheet. That would be fine if Figgis were aiming for comedy (the film works in its lighter moments: most actors, when improvising, tend to goof around and crack jokes). But Figgis and his four leads are taking it all deadly seriously. That's what I dislike about Figgis anyway: he tends to concoct silly, cliched storylines, but by throwing in things like alcoholism and "steamy" sex, he thinks he's making mature, challenging cinema. Please. Timecode plays best as a demo for what you can do with a digital video camera.
Figgis and his camera operators are to be lauded for their seamless staging; the film flows beautifully. But they depict a Hollywood that doesn't exist. Skarsgård is apparently a super-powerful film executive, yet he works in a cubicle! His film company seems to produce mainly softcore porn, yet some 19-year-old European art film superstar earnestly pitches her new film idea to them. (Her concept: a film split into four quadrants, with four synchronized cameras... Get it? How "meta".) And Figgis sticks no less than four big earthquakes in his film. LA doesn't get that many earthquakes in a decade! Clearly they were staged just so Figgis can have all four cameras shake at the same time.
This isn't reality. This isn't satire. It's just nonsense – split into quarters.