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BERLIN – At Point A, you are one person. At Point B, you are another person. At Point C, you are again transformed into yet another facet, angle, shard, area, zone. That theorem is repeated multiple times by a narrator adopting the patiently didactic tones of a 1960s psychiatric educational film in Maladies. This second collaboration between James Franco and the single-moniker multimedia artist-filmmaker Carter is a mock-serious rumination on fragmented identity, mental disorders and their role in the creation of art.
The three-point breakdown can be applied equally to the experience of watching this laughably pretentious dramatized dissertation, which time-shifts arbitrarily between the early ‘60s and 1978, the year of the Jonestown Massacre.
At Point A, you take your seat in the theater, cautiously open to experiencing the latest step in Franco’s ongoing quest to refashion himself into a living conceptual art project. At Point B – let’s say 10 minutes in, just to be generous – you become bored and irritated. At Point C, after 96 minutes of this self-reflexive nonsense, you are overcome by the urge to inflict harm, as two words are fused with the pain of a branding iron onto your weary brain: Get Carter.
OK, so that was a cheap shot. But really, aside from Franco’s cool collection of vintage plaid woolen coats, and some gorgeous tunes by composer J. Ralph and his music collective the Rumor Mill, there’s scant emotional, aesthetic or intellectual gratification in this grainy, flat-looking portrait of the artist as a young nut job.
The actor and writer-director’s previous venture together was Erased James Franco, a little-seen 2008 experiment in which the title figure re-enacted scenes from his screen and television work as well as parts of Julianne Moore’s role in Todd Haynes‘ Safe. Maladies plays more enigmatically with the overlap between Franco’s career and his character, identified only as James.
A former actor who either quit or was fired from a popular soap (a la General Hospital), he is now immersed in the fitful production of a magnum opus personal novel. But James is consistently stymied by obsessive thoughts on semantics, spatial relations, existentialism and epistemology. Gender and sexuality issues also trouble him. “James is filled with unease,” explains the narrator (Ken Scott), who switches back and forth between third-person commentary and first-person interrogation. “Sometimes it’s easy to set him off.” When that happens, only the sound of a telephone dial tone can soothe him.
Constantly questioning who and where he is as he responds to the literal voice in his head, James lives in a house not far from a beach in Far Rockaway, NY. His friend Catherine (Catherine Keener) takes care of him and his sister Patricia (Fallon Goodson), a near-catatonic kewpie doll in a matted wig, who smokes, plays records and occasionally interrupts her long silences to blurt out some blunt observation.
Catherine paints Rorschach-style ink art and likes to dress in male drag, putting on a suit and tie and a penciled mustache, which confuses James and Patricia. It also inflames an uptight diner customer played in a ridiculous cameo by Alan Cumming, who seethes, “Disgusting… man-lady!”
Their neighbor Delmar (David Strathairn) drops by frequently to borrow a cup of sugar, get help with a crossword or just stare longingly at James, mourning the waste of his great acting talent. When he’s home alone, Delmar watches reruns of James’ b&w soap, shown non-sequentially on late-night TV.
Concerns surface over the distinction between a bar of soap and a soap opera, the difference of the word betwixt from between, the virtues of pencils vs. pens, and whether a glass or a cup is a preferable drinking vessel. Whatever.
James’ stability is shown to be questionable when he spills a bottle of aspirin in a drugstore and then nervously creates chaos, knocking over the contents of display shelves. Delmar arrives in time to sort out the ensuing trouble, presenting himself to the police as James’ “aunt.” “James feels pain like the rest of us,” intones the narrator later in the film. His apparent intention to harm himself gets him arrested by a trio of cops (Carter among them) whose response reflects the insensitive treatment of mental illness during the period. But the tragic outcome unfolds like everything else here, as ponderous absurdity.
Among the more effective moments, James encounters a serene blind woman (Mary Beth Peil) reading a Braille book on the wintry beachfront. That prompts him in a funny subsequent scene to think about bringing a sensory perception to his writing. And while the cast generally favors stilted affectlessness in their acting, Strathairn is quietly amusing, even poignant, as he gets teary-eyed watching James dance. “Goodbye, you handsome actor, you,” he says at the end of one visit, an indication that Franco may be in on the joke.
As much as the film is about anything, in its less abstract moments it’s about the difficult and fragile process of creating art. James’ concerns about his own survival prompt him to make a pact with Catherine, promising that, should one of them die, they will complete the other’s work – he, her paintings, and she, his novel.
One of the intertitles punctuating the film’s various episodes is James’ faux-profound realization that “Everything needs to be made – and it needs to be made by someone.” Whether Maladies needed to be made is debatable.
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Panorama Special)
Production companies: Rabbit Bandini Productions, Dot Dot Dot Productions, Stardust Pictures, Most Films, Jeff Rice Films
Cast: James Franco, Catherine Keener, Fallon Goodson, David Strathairn, Alan Cumming, Ken Scott, Mary Beth Peil
Producers: Vince Jolivette, Miles Levy, Marni Zelnick, Jeff Rice, Jeff Most
Executive producers: Fallon Goodson, Justin Levine
Director of photography: Doug Chamberlain
Production designer: Casey Smith
Music: J. Ralph
Costume designer: Jessica Glenn
Editor: Curtiss Clayton
Sales: Voltage Pictures
No rating, 96 minutes
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