Maladies, a ponderous, self-important character study swimming with red herrings, reunites mononymic multimedia artist Carter with the star/subject of his 2009 film, Erased James Franco. (The screenwriter-director’s first name is John, but he’s gone by his surname alone for professional purposes since long before the mega-budget Disney fantasy epic John Carter tanked two years ago.) That 63-minute, 16mm experiment featured Franco, solo, reprising scenes from his own back catalog and “covering” others originally performed by Julianne Moore and Rock Hudson. Commercial, it was not. “It belongs in a museum!” as the noted archeologist Henry “Indiana” Jones, Jr., Ph.D., once growled.
Maladies—which was shot in late 2010, but didn’t surface until 2013’s Berlin International Film Festival—is more of a tease because it doesn’t seem like an experiment. Its affluent production values, its handsome bluish-green-tinted cinematography (by Doug Chamberlain), and the presence of co-stars Catherine Keener and David Strathairn all seem to promise a narrative with at least modestly commercial intentions. Alas, it briefly impersonates a queasy comedy about the hilarity of mental illness à la What About Bob?, then morphs into winking tragedy, gussied up with a sketchpad full of storytelling devices Carter wanted to try, regardless of whether they’re suited to the story he’s telling.
That diversity is a draw for Franco, not a deterrent: It’s been apparent for a while that Franco has a substantial prankish streak, and approaches his career as an ongoing performance-art project, and Carter builds the film around him. A genre-resistant piece about a dysfunctional former soap-opera star named James who spends his days wandering New York City snapping photographs and claiming to be writing a novel sounds like mother’s milk to the guy who in real life asked for, and got, a recurring role on General Hospital (as a character named Robert James “Franco” Frank, no less), and who in 2013 published a collection of short stories and ephemera called Actors Anonymous. Carter claimed credit in a Wall Street Journal interview for suggesting that Franco seek employment on a soap opera, but the book, it seems, was Franco alone.
Anyway, Movie-James lives with his sister (Fallon Goodson, also Maladies’ executive producer) in the spacious seaside home of Catherine (Catherine Keener, wink), an apparently wealthy painter and recreational cross-dresser (complete with penciled-on thin mustache) who looks after the pair out of kindness or obligation—their relationship is never clear. Catherine’s neighbor, Delmar (David Strathairn, in a sensitive performance that deserves to be worn by a better film), is a closeted gay man nursing a crush on James; he watches old episodes of James’ soap obsessively. The clips seen of the show-within-the-movie are actually from Franco’s stint on General Hospital. Say, just how deep does this rabbit hole go?
Not that deep. From the opening scene, where James broods on a windy beach, Carter peppers the dramedy with self-aware filigree. James can sometimes hear the film’s voiceover narration, like Will Ferrell in Stranger Than Fiction. He even talks back to it, out loud or via the power of rebuttal voiceover. Elsewhere, the audience is privy to voiceover that James can’t hear. Pick a lane, guy!
This is just directorial japery; it isn’t among the items presented as evidence of James’ deteriorating mental state, the movie’s ostensible subject. Maladies dramatizes his undiagnosed illness in small ways at first, as when he insists to Catherine that his white shirt is blue. Soon after that, James has a panic attack and starts knocking bottles off shelves in a drugstore, until Delmar saves him from arrest. That drugstore is the old-timey kind with a lunch counter attended by ladies in pillbox hats and veils and pearls.
About that: Maladies seems to be set in the late 1950s or early 1960s, judging by the cars, clothes, and slang. But in one lengthy scene, Catherine watches a news report about the Jonestown Massacre, which occurred in 1978. (“He does have a nice, thick head of hair,” James observes, when the cult leader Rev. Jim Jones appears on TV, which recalls the sort of bored half-jokes Franco cracked during his disastrous Oscars-hosting gig a couple of months after Maladies was shot.)
This deliberate anachronism is never alluded to, or commented on again. It’s just one of the arbitrary flourishes Carter introduces to test whether his artistic license and registration are in order, like a climactic scene wherein the camera remains still, but a chandelier descends into frame from the ceiling. Is Carter introducing a subplot about faulty wiring? Nope, he just really likes shots of chandeliers, perhaps because their refractive properties offer a ready metaphor for James’ fragmented psyche. They’re a better metaphor for the diffuse movie he’s made, which looks great, but is bad at focus.