In 127 Hours, James Franco hacked away at his arm. During Francophrenia, you might just wish he did the same to his head.
This is a shame, because this 70-minute documentary covering the star's return to the soap General Hospital, where he started out in 2009, begins as an impressive Fellini-esque dissection of American society, celebrity, and the at-times thin membranes separating an actor's public persona from the roles he plays and his inner self.
The film, however, degenerates into a masturbatory mockumentary which reveals that the co-directors -- Ian Olds and Franco himself -- have little vision, piddling wit, and negligible respect for their prospective audiences. Imagine David Lynch shooting his own colonoscopy, and you're halfway there.
This enterprise, a highlight of the Tribeca Film Festival, is accumulated from 40 hours of footage of rehearsals, backstory, fan interaction, and the actual shooting of an episode where the actor James Franco plays a disturbed character named "Franco," a schizoid, cult performance artist who knows where a kidnapped baby is hidden. Will Jason Morgan (Steve Burton) and other General Hospital regulars be able to save the tot before Franco goes berserk and kills innocent folks in his mad desire for revenge? Is the real Franco losing his hold on reality? And why, by the way, are those pictographs on a bathroom door commenting on the action?
Edited in a rather surrealistic manner -- less The Blood of a Poet and more The Viscera of a Putz-- the film holds a viewer's attention early on mainly because of Doug Chamberlain's first-rate cinematography and at times because of Olds's absurdly hallucinogenic and inanely unstructured editing; that's sadly upended by Olds's and Paul Felten's added voice-over commentary.
However, when Franco is left to his own devices, such as interacting with hundreds of plus-sized groupies, or trekking huge distances to reach a set, or being interviewed by vapid journalists, Francophrenia is mesmerizing.
Inarguably, the nearly always-watchable Franco is one of our more fascinating actors, a true Renaissance man who, one fears, might yet wind up in a decade or so a la Brando, sitting Buddha-style in Tahiti, muttering quips more inscrutable than Finnegans Wake.
Yet how angry can you get when co-director Olds admits in the film's press notes that the end result is a bit confusing to himself: "Whether it's a comedy or a horror show depends on who's watching. Personally, I hope it's a little bit of both." I believe it is. I believe it is. - Brandon Judell
Mr. Judell is currently teaching "Queer Theater" and "Theater of the Sixties" at The City College of New York and is Coordinator of The Simon H. Rifkind Center. He has written on film for The Village Voice, indieWire.com, The New York Daily News, Soho Style, and The Advocate, and is anthologized in Cynthia Fuchs's Spike Lee Interviews (University Press of Mississippi) and John Preston's A Member of the Family (Dutton).