Back in her “Pretty Women” days, I interviewed the young Julia Roberts and at one point she mentioned her dog, which she called Faulkner. Well, that’s one way to add some intellectual heft to your resume. Is it so different with James Franco? He says he loved the book when he first read it back in high school. Well, I loved a girl named Becky but I didn’t make a film about her.
Honestly, I root for James Franco, but he exhausts with his incessant need to produce every little thought into something for our consumption. His recent art exhibition in Berlin included some fairly lame paintings he did in college of his high school yearbook photos; you know, things like sitting on the bleachers at a swim meet. Yes, of course that’s better than the guy who sits on his ass and never produces anything. Although after Franco you begin to appreciate that lazy guy.
The director makes two choices right off the top: a split screen, and a pallet that lies somewhere between puke green and puke brown. The split screen turns this project into an art film, more or less. Annoying at times – it never allows for the simple disappearance into a film, which is why we go to them in the first place -- it is mostly an effective choice. The pallet reflects the land, of course, and perhaps the bland poverty of the Bundren family; it’s also as tedious as Anse, the patriarch of this small, pathetic clan determined to make bad choice after bad choice.
The story opens with Anse’s wife Addie dying, and the need to get her to burial in a far-off town. Things go from bad to worse, then from worse to catastrophic, or nearly so. Along the delayed way, during which Addie’s corpse is rotting, horses and legs are lost, a barn is burned, a daughter is forced into sexual favors in return for an abortion – now there’s some dark irony for you – and one son is arrested.
There are some effective performances, mainly Logan Marshall-Green as son Jewell, deep set and thoughtful behind a thick beard, and Tim Blake Nelson as Anse, whose horrible rotting teeth and super weird/annoying habit of keeping his mouth yawning open registers him high on the scale of disgusting male characters. Ahna O’Reilly’s Dewey Dell is the, well, dewey dell in this parched family, though I am giving her a lot of credit for simply wearing a pretty dress and not being dumb as a post and stubborn as a one of the mules Jewell has to trade his horse for.
Oddly, as the slightly clairvoyant and mad son Darl, this is Franco’s least effective portrayal; he’s there and that’s about it. Even when given a moment to shine at the end, he’s unconvincing. Perhaps his multitasking finally shows a downside he will understand. It was also a curious choice to alter the appearance of his costars Nelson and Marshall-Green with prostheses and copious facial hair, yet Franco looks just like James Franco, the actor. Or was that designed to keep this boutique, arty film in the mainstream?
Bigtime Cannes money man Avi Lerner, featured discussing the financing of films in James Toback’s “Seduced and Abandoned,” is on the list of producers. Which means, I suspect, that Lerner wrote Franco a check as a favor, thus once again showing that Franco manages to get things made that otherwise would not get made, for better or worse. In the case of “As I Lay Dying,” it’s a mixed bag.
On the one hand, it’s not a great film; on the other, it has its moments. It’s slow and not always engaging – several people walked out of the screening – but it’s watchable. At times, Franco shows his green hand; at others, a deft, sensitive touch. The first half was very slow; the second pulled you along inexorably, towards the grave that finally gets dug. Franco will direct again, that’s inevitable; but in future hopefully he will keep the acting and the directing separate.
At Cannes, hordes of girls were queuing for this slow, dark tale from Faulkner. Weird. Perhaps they’ll name their dogs after him. Perhaps that was Franco’s plan all along, to get the superficial fan base into some real literature and art. For that, at least, we can thank him. More or less.