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James Franco: He’s Just Kidding, Right?

April 27, 2012

James Franco likes to keep audiences guessing. Is he a highbrow actor (127 Hours, Milk)? A goofball stoner (Pineapple Express, Your Highness, hosting the Oscars)? A big-time movie star (Spider-Man 1-3, Rise of the Planet of the Apes)? At times, he approaches his career like a piece of performance art, guesting on General Hospital, then making a documentary about the experience (Francophrenia, now screening at the Tribeca Film Festival). One thing’s clear about his latest release, The Broken Tower, an experimental biopic of the gay early 20th century poet Hart Crane that Franco wrote, directed and stars in: He’s deadly serious about it. Emphasis on deadly.

To borrow a line from my former Two Cranky Guys colleague Bret Watson: This movie feels like it’s 127 hours. Shot in black and white, except for a color interlude—foreshadowing his role as the Wizard in the upcoming prequel Oz?—the 110-minute slog features endless sequences of Franco’s Crane walking through cities (often shot from behind, perhaps symbolic of his preferred sexual position), reading poetry and typing. How to dramatize the interior life of a writer has always been a cinematic challenge, and Franco hasn’t solved it here, no matter how many academic degrees he’s received. The movie started out as his master’s thesis, and it feels like the work of a pretentious grad student.

Already available on VOD and receiving a limited theatrical release this weekend, The Broken Tower is a family affair: Franco’s younger brother Dave (21 Jump Street) plays the junior version of Crane, and their mom, Grace (who’s also appeared on GH), plays Crane’s ma. Maybe they understood what Franco was going for, but I didn’t.

Mostly, this movie will be remembered for continuing to fuel another debate about Franco: Is he gay or straight? He’s often played homosexual characters—not just here and in Milk, but also in Howl (as another poet, Allen Ginsberg) and Nicolas Cage’s directorial debut Sonny. This time, the sex scenes are more explicit, as Franco performs fellatio (reportedly with a prosthetic penis) on a truck driver and hooks up with a sailor played by Michael Shannon. (The duo also costars in the upcoming contract-killer pic The Iceman, which sounds more commercial.)

The movie opens with a typically abstruse quote from Crane about poetry and is divided into roughly a dozen “voyages,” culminating with his suicide at age 32 by jumping off a steamship. After suffering through nearly two brutally boring hours of The Broken Tower, I knew how he felt.

What’s the deal with James Franco? Share your theories here!

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