Can We Ever Take James Franco Seriously Again as an Actor?

Can We Ever Take James Franco Seriously Again as an Actor?

Indie film director. Provocative documentarian. Novelist. College professor. The butt of roasters' jokes. Seth Rogen's "Bound 3" cut buddy. James Franco is many things these days, but, at this point, is "convincing dramatic actor" still one of them?

Odds are, Sylvester Stallone wasn't looking for laughs when he envisioned the character of "Gator Bodine," the backwoods, meth-cooking antagonist in Homefront, based on an old screenplay written by Sir Sly. Gator should be all icy, shot-calling menace. His first scene in the film is one of those bow-before-me entrances familiar to cinematic villains like The Last Dragon's Sho'Nuff. Gator walks into an abandoned cabin, armed with a baseball bat, and interrupts a ragtag crew of drug-using teenagers, putting the kibosh to their "kindergarten operation." The first thing they see is his shadow cast against the wall, bringing to mind that classic up-the-staircase shot in F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu, only far less terrifying. "My name is Ga-tor Bo-dine," he lets them know, as if they didn't already know he is, because, yes, Gator Bodine runs things in the rural terrain of Rayville, Louisiana. Hell, he even has an alligator tattoo on his right arm, so you know he's a badass (or maybe it's there to remind him and others what his first name is).

Gator should be intimidating, or at least imposing enough to make the sight of a bunch of teens soiling their undies believable. But it's not—it's hilarious. The reason: Gator Bodine is played by the tremendously miscast James Franco, speaking with a slight variation of the Florida drawl heard in Spring Breakers and delivering every line of dialogue with a put-on "evil grin," like he's standing on the perpetual verge of winking at the camera.

At one New York City press screening for Homefront, Franco's introductory scene elicited audible laughs from every critic in attendance, the chuckles beginning as soon as he announced, "My name is Ga-tor Bo-dine." From that point onward, Homefront never stood a chance at being anything more than an enjoyable goofy action romp, despite a better-than-usual Jason Statham's convincing turn as a former DEA agent trying to protect his young daughter from his enemies and Gator's own money-fueled wrath. Statham, though, might as well be going up against Wile E. Coyote during the film's climactic one-on-one smack down.

It hasn't always been this way. Three years ago, James Franco was emerging as one of the finest actors of his generation. He'd earned a Screen Actors Guild Award nomination and won a Independent Spirit Award for his tender portrayal of Scott Smith in Gus Van Sant's Milk in 2008, leading into his phenomenally charismatic and bold work as real-life survivor Aron Ralston in Danny Boyle's taut one-man show 127 Hours. Franco was finally capitalizing on the potential displayed in earlier work like the Spider-Man trilogy and the 2001 biopic James Dean. He was no longer the pretty boy known for starring in the 2006 trifecta of suckitude comprised of Flyboys, Annapolis, and Tristan & Isolde. Hollywood was his for the taking, and his decision to dedicate time to advancing as a writer and a filmmaker showed that Franco thrived on the hunger for more. Artistically, he was ready to become the next George Clooney, an A-list actor capable of directing first-rate films. He even took that a step further, teaching filmmaking and production courses at NYU and UCLA.

And then something weird happened. James Franco became a walking, talking performance art piece. He joined the cast of ABC's overwrought daytime soap General Hospital for 54 episodes, playing a shady "multimedia artist and serial killer" named, of course, Franco. He started signing onto every movie thrown his way, major and indie, ranging from pricey studio films in which he was wrongfully cast (Your Highness, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Oz the Great and Powerful) to low-rent DIY flicks not worthy of his talents and mostly confined to the film festival circuit (Maladies, About Cherry).

He let the world know that he was in on his own widely publicized joke with the oddball documentary Francophrenia (Or Don't Kill Me, I Know Where the Baby Is), the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival inclusion that flipped his General Hospital job into a tongue-in-cheek, Lynchian descent into faux madness. The doc contains a scene where the "Men" sign on the General Hospital set's bathroom door mocks him for acting on a soap opera. He released a couple of short story fiction collections and disastrously co-hosted the much-maligned 83rd Academy Awards broadcast in 2001 with a shell-shocked Anne Hathaway. That same year, he turned episodes of Three's Company into a artsy-fartsy experimental film called Three's Company The Drama, just because.

His newfound penchant for aggressively defying Hollywood's traditional path for Oscar nominees took over. Just like that, the Academy Award-nominated star of the critically acclaimed 127 Hours became known more for his self-aware, celebrity-heightening antics than for his acting. While not quite reaching Nicolas Cage's level of attraction, James Franco positioned himself as the industry's favorite enigma.

By the time Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers debuted earlier this year, the universally recognized stage-show that is James Franco reached its peak. Franco's work as the corn-rowed rapper/drug kingpin Alien is, and could very well remain, the best performance of his career. It's the one James Franco movie where his instantly polarizing on-screen presence is used to the film's and director's advantages.

Korine's dazzling and hypnotic look at bad girls gone beyond bad is a 90-minute music video depicting a fantastical nightmare version of Florida during spring break. Wholesome Disney Channel sweethearts sport skimpy bikinis, tote guns, and get Franco to fellate a machine gun.

Spring Breakers is the pinnacle of James Franco's exhibition of James Franco-ness. You can't portray a character as culturally transcendent as Alien, flip a switch, and go back to roles like Aron Ralston or Scott Smith. You can't do that without diminishing the film's dramatic impact by simply being you, the guy who shall forever be connected to hip-hop wild child Riff Raff.

GIF via Pedestrian TV

Thanks to Alien and every hey-look-at-me move Franco made post-127 Hours, Franco is now the kind of actor who will make critics and level-headed viewers prepare to laugh (or cringe, depending) whenever he appears in a new movie. Which happened at a NYC press screening for this year's Amanda Seyfried-led biopic Lovelace, where Franco makes a distracting cameo as a young Hugh Hefner. It also happened in a similar setting for the real-life-based Mafia hitman drama The Iceman, another example of a bit part given to James Franco to boost a small film's appeal that ultimately derails the movie's momentum as soon as he shows up.

Franco's only other effective 2013 performance, aside from Spring Breakers: This Is the End, in which he portrays an exaggerated version of himself and gamely takes potshots from co-stars and friends Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel, Danny McBride, and Craig Robinson. McBride riotously lampoons those rumors about Franco's sexuality, saying, "James Franco didn't suck any dick last night? Now I know y'all are trippin.'"

This is the End demonstrated that Franco knows he's a punchline. Why else did he let his funniest pals torch his ass in the name of insult comedy for The Comedy Central Roast of James Franco? That highly quotable special put him into a special class of pop culture magnates, right there alongside the venerable likes of Charlie Sheen, Flavor Flav, Pamela Anderson, and David Hasselhoff.

All of whom would have elicited the same reactions from those NYC press members during Gator Bodine's entrance early into Homefront. "My name is Ga-tor Bo-dine" might as well be, "Yeah, boy!" or, "Don't hassle the Hoff." Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, and Homefront director Gary Fleder wouldn't have made the film with any of those clowns, though. They wanted to make something real, something gritty. They hired James Franco because, at one time, he was an Academy Award nominee, and because the proposition of seeing James Franco play a cold-hearted baddie must have seemed radically subversive at the time. What they got, unfortunately for them and their movie, is the guy straddling Seth Rogen in the new "Bound 2" parody video. That is, the omnipresent art installation come to life known as James Franco, not the actor of old.

Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

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