James Franco's Latest Indulgence Is Actually Sorta Interesting

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Another instance of Franco playing Franco playing Franco, the Tribeca Festival-premiered Francophrenia (or: Don't Kill Me, I Know Where the Baby Is) dissects celebrity—and this particular celebrity's craziness.

francophenia 615 levin  Doug Chamberlain.jpg
Doug Chamberlain

At this point it's become a cliché to dredge up James Franco's refashioning of his public image from that of a moderately famous actor to the culture's leading multi-hyphenate. The actor/filmmaker/conceptual artist/PhD candidate/Oscar host/lip-sync fanatic's propensity for trying on new careers is so well-known it's been parodied by Saturday Night Live—the sure sign of a worn-out meme.

Franco has framed his almost-comical productivity as his best way of making the most of his celebrity. "I try to get a lot of attention," he recently told Vulture, "but I try to spread the attention around, to get people interested in the things I'm interested in." In Francophrenia (or: Don't Kill Me, I Know Where the Baby Is)—an introspective, experimental pseudo-documentary Franco conceived and collaborated on with director Ian Olds—the 34-year-old embarks on a deeper level of self-examination, baring the soul of a man who's trying to make sense of the madness surrounding him.

Whatever the film's flaws, Franco's pushing boundaries while most of his acting peers play things safe.

That makes Francophrenia one of the most intriguing movies currently showing at the Tribeca Film Festival. Simultaneously an existential exploration of out-of-control celebrity and a send-up of the movie-star ego, the film follows Franco as "Franco," the character he played on his General Hospital stint, during the shooting of a special episode at Los Angeles's Museum of Contemporary Art.

Like its subject, the movie is at once mystifying and relatable. It's consistent with what New York Magazine deemed Franco's obsession "with art that crosses over into reality," but it's more high-concept than most of his prior ventures in that vein. Made up of hushed, frenzied narration, warped stylistic digressions, and strange editing cues, the film offers a meta take on the absurd General Hospital storyline, in which the murderous "Franco" brings the GH characters to his art exhibition, greeting them with his smirking image looming large on a giant video screen.

While "Franco," the character, is a fiendishly over-the-top soap opera villain, his real-life alter ego is presented as a celebrity navigating an avalanche of outsized expectations. Francophrenia is most effective in its bitter dissection of that experience. The bleary-eyed Franco faces fans flocking to the art museum and calling for him frantically, forever expecting his Hollywood-star best. He spends ages in the makeup chair, shoots, re-shoots, and briefly dozes off in unlikely, uncomfortable places. He's forever on the go, beset by the responsibilities that come with being the main attraction.

Those demands have slowly, surely warped the "real" Franco portrayed in the film. A running inner monologue reveals the paranoid, megalomaniacal brute behind the dapper tuxedo, slicked-back hair and million-dollar smile. This Franco is sure of his self-worth, convinced that he's better than his co-stars, whom he secretly disdains. Imbued with the power to move figurative mountains, Franco looks down from atop the museum and contemplates the majestic frenzy of activity down below, in love with the spectacle he's created.

Of course, you have to siphon through a lot of dense, almost-indecipherable touches to root out the movie's take on celebrity as both a dehumanizing chore and intoxicating ego boost. Francophrenia can be high-minded to a fault, and it perpetually threatens to bog down in an abyss of dreamlike quirks, as when the Franco narration converses with the figures on a handicapped-bathroom sign. While the filmmakers could surely rationalize every editorial decision, the film might have played better had they checked some of their most out-there impulses.

But whatever its flaws, the film effectively encapsulates the particular madness of being James Franco. Put another way, Francophrenia offers the definitive portrait of "James Franco playing James Franco playing James Franco," a phrase New York Magazine once used to described the actor's fondness for "self-dramatizing." While the general fascination with Franco's absurd productivity began wearing off after his failed Oscar hosting stint, shifting to a broader but subdued skepticism, there's no question that he's pushing boundaries while most of his acting peers play things safe. This movie, however weird it might be, gets at the psychological and emotional truths of the Franco pursuit, portraying an artist working overtime and beyond, on a journey of self-discovery without sleep.

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Robert Levin writes about film and other entertainment topics for amNewYork, Inside Jersey, Backstage, and elsewhere. He is a member of the New York Film Critics Online guild.

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