Even the ubiquitous James Franco should have known better than to star in "Maladies," a pretentious head-scratcher involving would-be artistic expression, mental illness and shaving cream (don't ask).
Franco brings a bit of his trademark charisma to the muddled role of an unstable soap-opera-actor-turned-novelist, also named James, who finds himself in a Long Island beach house living "an artistic life" with his moody, cross-dressing painter friend (Catherine Keener) and his disturbed sister (Fallon Goodson).
Also on display is Delmar (David Strathairn), a fluttery neighbor with a penchant for ascots — and for James. Why this wistful "bachelor" affects a kind of Maine accent is just one of many inexplicable bits thrown in by writer-director — and renowned multimedia artist — Carter (just … Carter).
Another curiosity: If the story is supposedly set in the early 1960s, why the lengthy reference to 1978's Jonestown massacre? Just asking.
Divided into variously titled chapters ("Feelings," "Symmetry," "I See You"), the film attempts to explore its characters' wobbly emotional states via the art they create and, in some cases, destroy. But any real thematic heft is undercut by inane riffs on such things as pencils versus pens, the word "betwixt," Braille, dial tones and more, along with arch, intrusive narration (by Ken Scott) that may or may not be the voices in James' screwy head.
As James asserts here about art, "Everything needs to be made. And it needs to be made by someone." Everything, that is, but this tedious cinematic exercise.
MPAA rating: None
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes
Playing: At the Downtown Independent, Los Angeles. Available on VOD on March 25.