Poking fun at James Franco’s grandiose artistic ambition has become a minor national pastime over the past few years, as he continues to… oh, let’s call it diversify. Partly, it’s that people don’t especially want to see the amiable doofus from Freaks And Geeks and Pineapple Express write poetry or direct Faulkner adaptations. Mostly, though, the problem is that his artier efforts have been decidedly mediocre. Maladies, the second feature Franco has made with the multimedia artist known only as Carter (following the barely seen experimental film Erased James Franco), won’t be changing anybody’s minds, as it courts pretension with blithe disregard at every turn. Still, while the project looks ridiculous as a whole, there are moments of playful creativity here and there that suggest a more fruitful avenue for these two guys to travel—one that might let them strike out in a new direction without wandering completely into the wilderness.
Right from the jump, Maladies announces itself as offbeat. Judging from the clothes and cars, the film takes place sometime in the 1960s, but the first substantial scene shows characters watching news coverage of the Jonestown Massacre, which happened in 1978. Likewise, what appears at first to be omniscient voiceover narration (courtesy of Ken Scott, the narrator of Animal Planet’s Finding Bigfoot) soon begins directly addressing the protagonist, a retired actor named James (Franco), who talks back to what’s apparently just a voice inside his head. James, who suffers from some unspecified mental illness, lives with his equally bizarre sister (Fallon Goodson), in the home of a very tolerant and understanding friend, Catherine (Catherine Keener). Later, it’s revealed that Catherine comes by her tolerance the hard way, as she likes to dress as a man (complete with crooked pencil mustache) and has to deal with the abuse thrown her way by outraged folks like the one played, in a pointless cameo, by Alan Cumming.
It’s not at all clear what Carter (who also wrote the screenplay) and Franco are trying to say about the nature of creativity—Catherine is a painter; James is now attempting to write a novel—and its relation to both mental illness and various forms of unconventional behavior. The film becomes more incoherent as it goes along, culminating in a ludicrous standoff with the police, during which James is covered in shaving cream, and a completely unexplained death. As easy as it is to laugh at Maladies, though, it’s sometimes just as easy to laugh with it. The voice in James’ head continually attempts to correct his misapprehensions (“There’s nothing wrong with her ear, James,” it sonorously intones as he stares at Catherine in drag, bewildered), and there’s a fascination with language—words like “betwixt” and “whilst”—that deserves a less random context. All of the actors, including Franco, do excellent work, given the limitations imposed upon them by a scenario that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Were he a struggling up-and-comer rather than a movie star, the perception of an ambitious misfire like this one would probably be quite different. It’s not a good movie, but it deserves better than mockery.