James Franco Catherine Keener David Strathairn
James Franco will never be the actor that people think of him as; he is this artistic unit that chases projects that stand by themselves and have lots of people scratching their heads. Of course, Franco has the big budget Oz the Great and Powerful to satisfy those unaware of these small projects he dabbles in. It’s very clear that Franco enjoys these projects that, to most, make no sense, and Maladies is no different. The only thing to keep you watching this self-indulgent, self-reflective character study are the actors themselves, who are named “James” and “Catherine”, and you realize that the entire film is commenting about their individual career choices.
“It’s hard being civil when they ask so many questions,” James (Franco) says when we first meet him. James is an actor who is no longer an actor, as he now hears voices in his head (in which he openly and audible responds to) and has decided to write a novel. His sister Patricia (Fallon Goodson) has mental disorders of her own, and both siblings have moved in with Catherine (Keener), who is a good friend and also an artist. Besides the tension between the creative artists in the house the three get along pretty well, but neither James or Patricia respond well to Catherine’s urges to dress like a man occasionally.
Maladies takes us on a journey that we don’t exactly feel like we signed up for. Featuring clips and character commentary of Franco’s General Hospital soap opera stint, the entire project seems to be built around Franco’s world inside his head. One film that kept coming to mind was Adaptation, starring Nicholas Cage (his last good performance). That Oscar nominated movie also starred Keener playing a version of herself. Keener, who was most recently nominated for her supporting performance in Capote, deserves marks for the straight face she manages interacting with Franco in what appears to be a lot of ad-lib.
Straithairn (Good Night, and Good Luck) is not playing himself and therefore gives the most interesting performance in the film, especially his creepy nature towards the celebrity of the James character. One of the funniest scenes in the film is how obsessed James is with the underused word ‘betwixt’, explaining why Canadians use it and Americans do not. There are fragments of interesting segments that almost speak to the line of work Franco has taken on, the parallel between James here wanting to use pencils or write in braille to finish his novel might be compared to Franco taking projects like this and many others to live out his career.
Final Thought – More of a film you have to endure than enjoy.
Grade D By: Dustin Chase
Dr. Donna Copeland’s
This is a strange concoction written and directed by Carter about an unusual trio of people living together. James (James Franco) and Patricia (Fallon Goodson) are siblings, and their cross-dressing artist friend Catherine (Catherine Keener) has taken them in under her wing. James is schizophrenic and Patricia is close to it, so Catherine needs the patience of Job to deal with both of them. And she does, with care and concern. The neighbor Delmar (David Strathairn) pops in frequently, and seems to adore James, but admittedly envies him his talent. His praises always have a hint of mockery to them, and even though James reminds him repeatedly that he is no longer an actor--he is a writer--Delmar continues to refer to him as an actor. It is Delmar’s voice that James hears in his head from time to time, attempting to reassure him and bolster his confidence.
Altogether, the four of them sound like a dysfunctional family in their conversations. Questions are often answered obliquely, sidestepping the actual question and answering another that is just a bit off. James cannot tolerate it when Catherine speaks openly and directly about her feelings; for instance, when she complains about Patricia defacing some of her paintings, James defends Patricia while denying he is doing so. Then he abruptly leaves and talks to a dial tone on the phone. His comments consist of many truisms, such as “Everything needs to be made, and it needs to be made by someone” and “Things at one point don’t exist and then they do…The artist creates them from nothing.”
The film is in sections, with leading statements to introduce each one, such as “Symmetry” and “People don’t understand how really sensitive other people are.” The fluidity of identity and its continual shifts is a running theme. Several times in the film the assertion is made that “at Point A you are one person, at point B you are another, at point C you are yet again transformed.” James clearly plays this out, once “losing it” in a drugstore and another time completely decompensating. During these episodes his usual politeness becomes aggressive and hurtful.
In a press conference at the SXSW Film Festival, Carter expressed his interest in portraying mental illness in a way that is different from most Hollywood productions. This film does do a good job in showing that mental illness does not always have to be associated with hospitals, doctors, and drugs, and that we need to remind ourselves that those with problems are real people. It may also be that Carter is talking about the aesthetics of art, which he regards as outside the realm of reality, and perhaps thinks that one must be a little “crazy” to create it and participate in it. His film is much like an abstract painting, which one must interpret metaphorically rather than in a concrete, realistic way. The Alan Cumming character who appears towards the end might represent the common person mystified by artistic personalities. Grade: B-