Is James Franco Playing Himself in ‘Maladies’?

By  · Published on February 5th, 2014

“You don’t need any help thinking abstractly, James.”

Multi-hyphenate James Franco and his apparent quest to do everything has long bled over into the sense that the actor-turned-whatever is doing actual performance art in his own life ‐ particularly when it comes to stuff like his soap opera stint on General Hospital and his weirdly compelling turn in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers. Franco may be ostensibly interested in reaching out beyond the norm, but he paradoxically seems to do that sort of thing while also still being so very James Franco.

Franco’s latest project (and, when it comes to Franco, this stuff is always a “project” with a capital P) is a film called Maladies, an almost suffocatingly arty affair in which Franco appears to be playing a version of himself. In the film, Franco stars as a failed actor named James who abandons Hollywood for small town life, the kind that ultimately seems to be even stranger than any sort of existence he carved out for himself in good old La-La Land. James’ attempts to establish a new way of living are thwarted by a few things ‐ namely, his latent mental illness. Is James Franco playing James Franco?

The film is written and directed by Carter, a single-name multimedia artist who has just one other cinematic credit under his belt ‐ 2009’s Erased James Franco, which starred Franco as, yes, of course, Franco and saw the actor recreating scenes from his own work along with giving his own spin on Julianne Moore’s role in Safe and Rock Hudson’s in Seconds. It is approximately eight times more weird than it sounds but, if nothing else, it sure proves that Carter has a muse and a kindred spirit in Franco. (Also, please remember that Franco’s character in General Hospital was simply known as “Franco.”)

Maladies centers on Franco’s James, a former soap star (oh, really?) who hears voices (or, at least in this trailer, a single voice that sounds suspiciously like a smoothie trailer voiceover narrator) and uses that as a reason to shove off from Hollywood. Small town life is not easy, however, and James’ life soon filled with plenty of wacky weirdness to fuel him ‐ from Catherine Keener being dippy as his best friend, Fallon Goodson as a his specter of a sister, and David Strathairn putting on the ritz with the kind of faked out Southern accent that will make you cringe. Maladies is essentially about the merging of the eponymous troubles, and promises that said maladies will start to “intertwine.” So, what, folie a quatre?

The film’s first trailer is fine enough, at least at first, with James Franco as “James” observing himself on a television screen, where he (“James”) appears to be playing James Franco’s “Franco” on General Hospital in a way that’s actually not entirely mind-trapping. Then, inevitably given Franco’s panache for the strange, the whole thing becomes a bit of parody of more twee outings, with Franco wackily spilling pills in a crowded pharmacy (while wearing sunglasses!), hiding in a phone booth, dreamily taking pictures with a vintage camera, and menacing the cops with a princess phone. There’s also the creeping sense that Carter’s film is either set in the past (fifties era or thereabouts) or that James’ new hometown is trapped in earlier decades. Visually, the film is appealing, and Carter’s style isn’t anything to sniff at, but Maladies sure just looks like another piece of slightly titled performance art for Franco to romp in.

Also, at one point, he just lays down in the middle of the sidewalk. Classic Franco! Take a look:

Maladies will open in limited release on March 21st. [Yahoo! Movies]

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