We are gathered here today to finally answer a question that has plagued humankind for centuries (or, well, since at least the late 90s) and that has taken this writer on an emotional roller coaster over the past decade or so.
James Franco: gifted artist forever searching for the next burst of ecstatic truth; or pretentious dilettante bouncing from project to project like a shiny-but-dim pinball?
James Franco, born mid-April, 1978, in Palo Alto, California, has been a recurring presence on the big screen for the best part of two decades now. He first made his name, however, on TV, as part of the wonderful ensemble cast that made up Judd Apatow’s cult comedy, Freaks And Geeks. Franco fit in seamlessly and shined equally bright alongside such budding talent as Linda Cardellini, Jason Segel, Seth Rogen, Martin Starr, and Busy Philipps, amongst others.
I never saw Freaks And Geeks at the time of its original airing. Like most people, I only caught up with it after seeing all the other star-making stuff that its cast would make years later. The Knocked Ups and Forgetting Sarah Marshalls and Bloodlines—I loved those things, and they are what compelled me to travel backwards to discover for myself this great little gem whence its stars had sprung.
Funnily enough, it had also taken some compelling for me to originally see those movies that I would end up loving and that would endear this group of actors to me—at least when it came to Apatow-and-friends slew of movies. I’m not sure why, but I used to have a bit of a prejudiced distaste for that whole scene. Call it some form of snobbery and let’s move on. The point is that—pig-headed and deaf to well-intentioned entreaties—I resisted for years, secure in the knowledge that I would never bend and never yield.
Cut to 2009, in the early, too early, way-too-early hours of the morning. That time when the black of night begins to crack and bleed and the first advance hints of a grey dawn come to infect it. It was under that sky I found myself arriving home from a night out, and for some reason in desperate need not of sleep, but of a movie instead. A funny movie. It’s in this weakened state that a stone came loose in my mind and the advice of a friend bubbled up from beneath it. ‘Pineapple Express is fucking hilarious, man. You really should give it a shot.’ Met with a dismissive grunt in more lucid times, it hit me then with the power of diktat, and before I knew it I was watching James Remar watching Bill Hader smoke weed and swear at him in black and white.
In that pre-dawn twilight and in my half-asleep state, I loved Pineapple Express. I still love it. I loved James Franco in it too. His Saul Silver was everything David Gordon Green’s movie was: funny and unexpectedly sweet; genuinely affecting at times. I thought to myself then, ‘I like this dude. What an easygoing, warm performance. I like this dude. This dude is cool. I should see him in other things.’ Then I collapsed into oblivion and slept the day away.
That was eight years ago. A simpler time. A time when I could utter a statement like ‘this dude is cool’ in reference to James Franco without reservation. Now, the best part of a decade later, where the do I stand?
I stand exhausted and emotionally drained, half-starved and lost in a labyrinthine dilemma of your creation, Franco!
I just don’t know where we are with you. Do we rate your skills, or do we not? You don’t make it easy. For every good and interesting performance of yours that gives us hope, you deliver two or three dull and uninspired turns that make Sam ‘Pavement Excitement’ Worthington look the picture of engaging vitality. I know you’ve got what it takes. I’ve seen it in Milk. It was the only thing that made 127 Hours kinda watchable. Hell, you and your shit is the main bit I now remember from Harmony Korrine’s Spring Breakers—a movie still impossible to classify as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but which certainly at least earned the title of ‘memorable.’
So what the hell was with that flatlining, listless nonsense you brought to the new Planet Of The Apes movies? Or to whatever the hell Oz The Great and Powerful was?
Are you bored? Would you rather be directing? You clearly love it—counting the features and the shorts and the documentaries, you’ve got 37 directing credits under your belt! But then again, they include efforts like As I Lay Dying and Child Of God, so maybe you’re bored of that too?
Do you want to be writing your short stories instead? Making your conceptual video works? Or directing your multimedia dance/theater/video hybrid pieces?
What do you want, James Franco?!
Can’t you just be Saul Silver?!
Saul Silver doesn’t give lectures or teach classes, or write think pieces about Shia LaBeouf.
But I guess you’re not Saul Silver, are you, James Franco? And maybe it’s not my place to say what you can and can’t do. After all, who am I to try and clip your wings? It’s just—when you’re good, you can be really good.
Why wouldn’t you want to be really good all the time, James Franco?
Dammit. I came here to answer a question and all I’ve done is upset myself in the process. I need a drink.