The multi-hyphenate James Franco — sleepy-eyed Oscar co-host, documentary filmmaker, installation artist, author, professor, soap opera star, selfie advocate — gives James Franco the actor a bad rap. Franco can be a fantastic actor in the strangest situations, like his performance as the weirdly endearing, creepy rapper/hustler Alien in "Spring Breakers." "Maladies," a lifeless indie that will disappear into the land of on-demand, is the kind of movie that makes Franco's reputation as a pretentious enfant terribly hard to ignore.
Franco plays James, "an actor who is no longer acting." Instead, he spends a great deal of time hearing voices, listening to dial tones, and hanging out with his friend slash keeper Catherine, who is played by Catherine Keener. James's sister Patricia, played by Fallon Goodson, actually does seem a tad disturbed, but in that eccentric way that is accepted and even coddled in a certain type of woman. For instance, she wears a severe black wig over her blonde hair, which purposefully peeks through. David Strathairn also appears as an overly friendly neighbor who laments James's retirement from acting. Occasionally, Catherine puts on a snappy suit and brushes a fake mustache above her upper lip. James makes scenes in public and offers Jack Handy-worthy Deep Thoughts, like, "Everything needs to be made — and it needs to be made by someone. The weight of it is immense." James also offers up some choice homophobic slurs against Delmar (Strathairn) and Catherine. Basically, he acts like a giant spoiled brat.
It's all incredibly exasperating. Frankly, it's an insult to people who actually do struggle with mental illness and can't afford to meander along windswept beaches, peering through artsy old cameras and talking to a voice-over artist. There's not much of a narrative to speak of, and it's unclear what sort of urgent message Franco is trying to get across to the viewer. Details like the score, which recalls old TV sitcoms, make it seem like writer/director Carter has more to say about performance and reality than "Maladies" indicates. The costumes and production design look professional, so there's that. But overall, what the hell is this movie?
It figures that Carter has previously collaborated with Franco in a meta mess. "Erased James Franco," which came out in 2008, featured the actor performing beat-by-beat Julianne Moore's role from "Safe" and Rock Hudson in "Seconds," as well as some of his own roles. It sounds like the sort of thing that drives grad students wild: post-modern and highfalutin, purposefully obfuscating, yet not nearly as clever as it thinks.
"Maladies" is at least watchable, though just barely. It's the equivalent of watching Franco in a fun house mirror, making faces to amuse himself. "The Clock," this ain't.
SCORE: 4.0 / 10