I don’t know when it happened exactly – maybe it was his non-performance hosting the Oscars – but the worm has definitely turned on the general enthusiasm for James Franco. For a while, everything he touched was a source of endless media fascination, but that’s pretty much over. No one I talked to here at Cannes going in was particularly excited about seeing his adaptation of William Faulkner’s challenging novel As I Lay Dying and those who were assigned to it weren’t looking forward to it. The thing is, it’s not Franco’s fault that every artistic doodle he’s tossed off and each creative whim he’s followed has been treated with such reverence. And his name still has cachet. Would As I Lay Dying have ever been chosen for the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes or would it ever have even been made without Franco’s name front and center? No, it wouldn’t because unfortunately it’s not very good.
You have to tip your hat to Franco’s ambition in trying to adapt a novel told in stream of consciousness from the perspective of 15 different characters, but ambition and good intentions don’t necessarily add up to a compelling film. On the bright side, Franco gets some interesting performances out of everyone in his cast except himself. Especially good is Tim Blake Nelson as Bundren family patriarch Anse who has a memorably disgusting mouthful of little brown tooth nubs, but he also sabotages them at every turn with an overly arty split screen presentation. Apparently meant to give what otherwise has the sparseness of live theater (but without the immediacy of an actual play) the vitality of the cinematic, the split screen only serves to distract audiences from the performances and distance them from already challenging material.
Movies and novels are obviously two entirely different things, but one always hopes an adaptation will capture a little something of its source while enhancing it in some unexpected way. Franco’s As I Lay Dying is certainly respectful of Faulkner but maybe a little overly so. It never makes the case for itself as a piece of art on its own, nor does it add anything to the original or make it feel fresh and new again. It’s a vanity/passion project from a guy whose every whim has made news lately. Maybe it’s past time for him or us to take a little break.