'King Cobra': Tribeca Review

King Cobra Still - H 2016
Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival
A dreary would-be thriller based on a true story.

Two young porn stars attract the interest of rivals James Franco and Christian Slater.

Yet another opportunity for festivalgoers to learn how fascinated James Franco is with pornography (and with teasing fans about his sexuality), Justin Kelly's King Cobra casts the actor as a pimp and producer who yearns to make a hot young performer, played by Garrett Clayton, part of his stable. Less a story about seduction of the innocent than of an amoral kid who isn't smart enough to succeed without some felonious help, the ill-paced drama has limp box-office potential despite supporting perfs from Franco and Christian Slater as the elders exploiting, and lusting after, their proteges.

Clayton plays Sean Lockhart, a teen who enters the pic under the nom-de-xxx Brent Corrigan, lounging on a sofa in front of porn mogul Stephen (Slater) who can barely restrain himself as he shoots a screen test. Stephen runs a thriving business from his tidy suburban home, and invites the youngster to stay with him while Brent makes his first videos for the company. Soon the internet loves Brent, and sugar-daddy Stephen gets to at least tell himself the boy is sleeping with him out of pure attraction.

Meanwhile, Franco's Joe runs a less established enterprise, Viper Boys, that really just consists of him and his own boy toy, Harlow (Keegan Allen, giving the film's only really affecting performance). This is both a more established relationship and a more exploitative one: Nicknaming him "Piggy Bank," Franco rents Harlow's services to other middle-aged men, then gets furiously jealous at the notion that Harlow enjoys the encounters. He needn't worry: The boy is devoted, though that may owe something to the lavish way Joe supports him. While keeping that gravy train rolling, Joe racks up half a million dollars in debt.

Kelly spends so long establishing these two relationships, looking at the gifts and the internet fame and the inevitable possessiveness, that he has little time for the developments that might've turned a better paced version of this story into a true-crime nailbiter. Stephen and Brent have a falling out over money, leading the older man to get Brent blackballed from other work and Brent to retaliate by starting an underage-porn scandal. Joe wants to escape debt by making a blockbuster video starring Brent and Harlow, and is willing to do anything to Stephen if he stands in the way. Weirdly, that "anything," and the resulting fallout, is crammed uncomfortably into the pic's last few minutes. Aside from Brent's shocked and ashamed mom (Alicia Silverstone, whom Clayton actually resembles), the only one we feel very much for is Harlow, who has clearly suffered a lot more than his associates on his way to this ugly-glamorous life.

Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Midnight)
Production companies: Yale Productions, SSS Entertainment, RabbitBandini Productions
Cast: James Franco, Christian Slater, Garrett Clayton, Keegan Allen, Alicia Silverstone, Molly Ringwald
Director-screenwriter: Justin Kelly
Producers: James Franco, Vince Jolivette, Jordan Yale Levine, Scott Levenson, Shaun Sanghani
Director of photography: Benjamin Loeb
Production designer: Anastasia White
Costume designer: Matthew Simonelli
Editor: Joshua Raymond Lee
Composer: Tim Kvasnosky
Casting director: Heidi K. Eklund
Sales: CAA

Not rated, 91 minutes