There are great films that bring you to the verge of tears, others that leave you doubled over in laughter, and still others that take permanent residence in your mind and make you think. But then there are some that don't make you feel anything at all but a strong sense of apathy. The James Franco drama, MALADIES, falls into the latter category.
For what it's worth, there's nothing outrageously awful about the film, which tells the story of James, a 60s-era soap opera star-turned-fledgling author who has only a flaky relationship with reality (Franco) and his similarly eccentric roommates, best friend Catherine (Catherine Keener) and sister Patricia (Fallon Goodson). It's just utterly bland. Each scene is like watching a visual journal that never arrives at a point, but rather simply tells you what happened. It's a frustrating watch.
Within the first few minutes of the film, we're introduced to James by way of his narrator, a third-person voice who lives inside James's head yet we can also hear him too. He's forced down our throat since he never leaves James, and James is in almost every frame of the movie. So it's our job to either tune him out or listen to him as he states the obvious about James in every single scene (i.e. a play-by-play of James's feelings, as if to say Franco's acting doesn't already do that). Coincidentally, it would have been more interesting to watch James talk to this voice on the phone, since one of James's quirks is listening to the dial tone of the phone--it apparently soothes him somehow, similarly to how the narrator comforts him.
Then there's Patricia, who I call the Uncle Fester of the group. That's because she's often cowering in the shadows (or upstairs ambling about doing Goodness knows what), popping out only to remind us how weird the other two people are by opening her eyes real wide in utter disgust when they say anything. I don't think it's so much that these characters are odd, as much as it is odd that this is a story. Like, what is it trying to say? Why should we care?
The film never answers that, even when the closest character that comes to a moral compass, Delmar (David Strathairn), drops into the scene on occasion to dust it with a little kumbaya. He's a neighbor and the ultimate fan of James's old soap opera, so apparently he feels it necessary to protect James from himself. But Delmar comes off more as a nuisance, lingering in James's home a little too long and being visibly moved to tears while watching old episodes of James's soap opera (with James sitting right next to him). So obviously Delmar has got his own set of similarly nondescript emotional problems over which to obsess. Which begs the question: why does he even bother with his neighbor? Why does he care so much, just something for him to do with his time? Does he have a hopeless crush on James?
Perhaps the lesson here is that we all need a companion in our lives to depend on and care for us, even when we don't actually want them there and even if they're no better off than us. But it's not an exploratory narrative; it's dreadfully one-dimensional completely meaningless. Why should we care about these characters when it doesn't even seem like the screenwriter, Carter (who's also the director of the film and previously worked with Franco on Erased James Franco), respects them enough to conceptualize their stories? Are we to assume that they're all victims of their environment, their era?
These questions are never really answered, which makes you check out early on in the film and merely go through the motions of watching it with just as much investment as the actors seem to have for it (especially Keener, usually an effective actress who here simply enables her character without truly understanding her). Franco's portrayal, while truly committed to the character, is messy and even a bit cartoonish at times to the point where you feel more discomfort for the character rather than empathy.
MALADIES may not be the worst film this year, but there is something to be said about a movie that leaves you feeling nothing, knowing nothing and not caring otherwise. It just happens, that's it.
Rating: D+ (*1/2 out of *****)
MALADIES is now available in select theaters and will be available on nationwide VOD and iTunes/digital platforms beginning March 25. In case you missed the movie trailer, you can watch it in my previous post here.