About as hard to get through as anything you’re likely to see this year, the second collaboration between James Franco and the New York-based multimedia artist known simply as Carter is an overwrought and cloyingly self-reflexive mess that benefits greatly from a couple instances of playful brilliance. These episodes, sadly, aren’t enough to save the film from its own overarching mediocrity, and the film ends up making up for its missing depth with pop psychology and overly grave performances.
Ostensibly a meditation on social constructions around mental illness set in a weirdly anachronistic merger of the 1950s and 60s, and the 1978 Jonestown Massacre, Maladies finds itself toying with conventions of storytelling and narrative in pretty much the most boring way you can imagine. Franco plays an erstwhile wildly successful soap opera star who suffered a nervous breakdown after being let go (or retiring, if you ask him) from his job. Living with his disturbed younger sister (Fallon Goodson) and an older visual artist friend-cum-caretaker with a penchant for hitting the town in drag (Catherine Keener), Franco’s is a house of quirk, and unabashedly so.
Maladies employs an omniscient narrator to fill us in on some of the details surrounding why it is that Franco finds it hard to cope with human interaction, but soon enough that voice starts speaking directly to Franco. What seems like a device entreating us to partake in Franco’s madness turns out to be a fairly stale, repetitive, and ultimately pointless interchange between the actor and the voice in his head, giving Franco ample opportunities to really act out some solo scenes in his sartorially exquisite get-ups. While the accidents and symptoms surrounding his illness pique our interest, we’re never really given any indication concerning the substance of that illness.
Underneath the visually pleasant dross that makes up the majority of this film there’s an interesting attempt at examining how societies view mental illness (or, at least how Carter and Franco imagine people in 50s/60s/1978 America might view mental illness). It’s an examination that, if deftly executed, could have provided an intriguing anchor to the various weirdness that permeates the film. However, what one would think as constituting the real work of the film seems to have received the least amount of attention from Franco and Carter, the pair focusing instead on grossly self-indulgent and squirm-inducing Great Performances™ from the various actors involved in the project. The most interesting piece in this film (and by far the most subtle) is the job David Strathairn does playing a heartsick lonely neighbor and devotee to Franco’s soap opera work.
It’s hard to separate Maladies from the larger trend of irksome mediocrity that is becoming a hallmark of James Franco’s career. Maddeningly vacillating between sheer brilliance (Spring Breakers) and pablum like this film and Interior, Leather Bar, his is an artistic temperament without a filter, bombarding those interested in his career with milquetoast poetry and high-concept though pitifully executed film projects. Tragically, Maladies is one more entry in the category of Franco projects whose reach exceeded their grasp, the germ of a really interesting movie undertaken far too early in its development. Let’s all hope for a little more Alien and a little less Faulkner in the years to come.