Media-types tend to find James Franco as endlessly fascinating as the actor/author/conceptual artist/writer-director/soap opera star/doctoral candidate/Oscar host/professional dilettante finds himself, yet certain massive elements of Franco’s career have flown under the public radar. The 33-year-old is now a veteran writer-director with five feature-length narrative films (Fool’s Gold, The Ape, Good Time Max, Sal, and now The Broken Tower) and a documentary about the filming of Saturday Night Live (cleverly titled Saturday Night) to his credit. But collectively, Franco’s low-budget, low-profile filmmaking oeuvre hasn’t attracted half the notice of his stint as a soap-opera actor on General Hospital or his infamous gig smirking his way through the Academy Awards telecast as Anne Hathaway’s suspiciously mellow co-host. For its part, The Broken Tower contains a combustible combination of attention-grabbing elements—it’s a moody, black-and-white biopic of influential gay poet Hart Crane with a fair amount of graphic gay sex starring Franco, his lookalike brother Dave (of 21 Jump Street fame), and Oscar nominee Michael Shannon—that nevertheless failed to earn it much notice.
The Broken Tower casts its writer-director as Crane, a poet who struggled to find his true voice and reconcile his feverish artistic ambition with the harsh realities of having to make a living at a time when his rapacious homosexuality—he had an insatiable craving for sailors that put him in regular peril—rendered him a pariah both within his family and outside of it.
That description makes the film seem far more linear and coherent than it actually is. The Broken Tower is divided into chapters roughly correlating to significant events in Crane’s brief but eventful life (he killed himself at 32), but the film is largely devoted to moody, impressionistic, perfume commercial abstraction. The Broken Tower tries to divine profound truths about language, poetry, and its role in capitalist society by lingering lovingly on Franco’s chiseled face and perfect cheekbones as he lurches drunkenly through ill-fated romances and backbreaking day jobs. It’s a one-man show in the truest, most maddeningly solipsistic sense: Though Dave Franco and Shannon are prominently billed, they barely make an impression in tiny roles that never threaten to take the monomaniacal focus off the writer/director/star’s face as he alternates between the earthy physicality of his life as a lover, laborer, and drinker and the rarified life of the mind as he performs at poetry readings. The Broken Tower’s only compelling segments involve its hero being reduced to barking, playful faux-madness by a day job in copywriting, sequences that temporarily break through the thick fog of portentousness that enshrouds this humorless film. Otherwise, it plays like unwitting art-house self-parody from a narcissist who takes himself, and his brooding subject matter, way too seriously.
Key features: Franco does an audio commentary with producer Vince Jolivette and cinematographer Christina Voros, and includes short interviews with various Hart Crane scholars.