At the time of his 1976 murder, Sal Mineo was the rare celebrity to have publicly acknowledged his homosexuality, which might be why the killing was instantly engulfed in rumor-fueled scandal. In "Sal," director James Franco and screenwriter Stacey Miller set out to separate the random stabbing from the life it ended.
Val Lauren, charismatic in the title role, suggests the vulnerability that was intrinsic to Mineo's screen work, most famously in "Rebel Without a Cause." But the results are muddled as the film imagines the last day of Mineo's life, the drama unfolding as an enervated countdown to the fatal hour.
At its most perceptive, the movie taps into a social stratum that's endemic to Hollywood: the state between has-been and comeback. Mineo received his first Oscar nomination while in his teens. "Sal" captures him when he's 37 and climbing his way back from the margins of the star chart. Feeling capable of great things, he's about to open in a play (Franco, seen only from the back, appears briefly as the production's director).
But Mineo is not ready to compromise a movie project he's pitching to the studios, speechifying over lunch with his agent about gritty realism and realistic homosexual screen representations.
Multihyphenate Franco's sixth feature-length work as a director is very much an L.A. story, not just in the biz-speak (options and penalties, the horror of rewrites) but in the feel for the city as car-centric experience. There's something generic, though, about his depiction of Mineo, whose forays to the gym and the dance clubs are treated with a momentousness that they don't warrant. Working from Michael Gregg Michaud's biography, Franco seems torn, on the one hand presenting his subject as a likably ordinary, self-involved actor and on the other sanctifying him as a would-be gay icon in a conformist industry. Either way, longueurs get the better of this Hollywood tale.
MPAA rating: None
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
Playing: Sundance Sunset Cinema, West Hollywood. Also on VOD.