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Review: James Franco's 'As I Lay Directing' (TRAILER)

by Tom Christie
October 9, 2013 12:03 PM
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Franco As I Lay Dying

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.


  • Anne Thompson | May 23, 2013 2:01 PMReply

    TOH features various critics and writers from all sides of the James Franco spectrum. There is no institutional bias against him. And I would never edit a critic's take. I have not seen "As I Lay Dying" yet and look forward to doing so. I've admired some of Franco's shorts (see this story here and certainly many --if not all--of his performances. He's a gifted and intelligent man and I am not alone in wondering if he spreads himself too thin. He's far better in "Milk," "127 Hours," "Pineapple Express" and "Howl" and also nabbed better reviews in "Spring Breakers" than "Oz: The Great and Powerful" or "Rise of the Planet of the Apes." Maybe he makes a better character actor than a studio movie star. It seems to make a difference when he really connects with a role than when he sleepwalks through one--like the one as Oscar host.

  • Tarps | May 21, 2013 7:47 PMReply

    I thought this was a pretty balanced review, despite those rushing to the defense of JF. This book is a nightmare (in my opinion) to begin with, but I think the limited locations and characters therein would have made it doable project for a inexperienced director. I think Franco strives to be taken seriously, but still wants to keep one foot in his mainstream and pinup fame - which ultimately hurts him. So he gets the money from the Lerners of the world and gets the Cannes showing - but is that because of the quality of the project or because he is James Franco? I'll probably see this, for the adaption if nothing more - but would like to see Franco step back from himself and the cult of Franco when next embarking on a film. He may be better helping some real independent film-makers get their projects running in a Producer capacity, hopefully giving him a better understanding of how hard it is to get things of the ground when you're not a movie star already. I think it could only add more depth and experience to his work, which from above it sounds like he needs.

  • jmoney | May 21, 2013 9:43 AMReply

    As the "hordes of girls" queuing for the film at Cannes suggest Lerner was probably not doing Franco a favour when he wrote that cheque.

  • tyler4all | May 21, 2013 9:13 AMReply

    You lost me at "puke brown" and "puke green". You're letting your contempt for Franco show through in what should be a review of a movie he made. try to divorce the artist from his/her work.

  • Franco'sReal | November 5, 2013 2:32 PM

    @ TOM - you used the key word 'contempt', thus you were probably replying back to @ TYLER4ALL but I saw this again as I stated previously and wanted to response further below.

  • Franco'sReal | November 5, 2013 2:25 PM

    @TOM - A bit late in responding just seen this again, 'but as he's using his own celebrity in all of his work -- one way or another -- I don't think you can divorce his work from his name.', SO WHAT?

    What has that got to do with the excellent faithful movie to the book that I have now experienced. You mean like every single actor/actress, director etc. in the industry who does exactly the same thing also.

    Yet somehow, James Franco is being attacked for this. What about Clint Eastwood, George Clooney, Angelina Jolie, Warren Beatty, Peter Berg, Kevin Costner, Jodie Foster, Mel Gibson, Ron Howard, Sean Penn, Sylvester Stallone and Ben Stiller etc., again I don't think you can divorce their work from their names either.

  • Franco'sReal | May 23, 2013 12:41 PM

    @ TYLER4ALL - I agree with your assessment 100%.

    This site has pure venom when it comes to anything Franco, that it has become more embarrassing for the site than anything Franco has ever done, because they are so unprofessional in their approach. Any case, this will be a brilliant year for Franco regardless.

    Not every movie is going to be a hit or liked as it's open to many interpretations but just they way this site goes after Franco is just again, so obvious, in contrast to who they like to support even if their movies are bad.

    '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.', this screams of extreme jealously and wasn't it this very own site who claimed Franco wasn't a movie star? Now, you are saying he has so much power that Lerner wrote him a check? You need to get your stories straight, the hate is clouding your judgments when you report anything on him.

    Also, doesn't every single person in the movie industry want a check, especially when they want a movie to get off the ground and for better or worse you will not know the final verdict until it's fully showcased on screen? Which by then some will love and some might not like but at least it was still WORTH the while.

    Why should it be any different for Franco but appreciated for Gosling, JGL, Affleck etc.

    'hordes of girls were queuing for this slow, dark tale from Faulkner. Weird', again, why is it weird that people want to see what Franco has undertaken? Would it be weird that anyone show up for all that other movies taking place in Cannes?

    As for Franco's latest movie itself, it takes a lot of bottle to try and undertake a movie that no one has dared tried for 80 years. Just think of all those iconic Directors past and present who didn't even want to make some kind of effort. Yet Franco who took this project seriously by putting half of his own money in, is hated for just believing that this is possible to even achieve.

    As some other fair critics have stated, this movie is great but some critics will score it low just for the sake of it. I haven't seen the movie yet to fully judge but I'm willing to give it a try for someone who has the bottle to reach another level of directing by trying something different and at least getting more people to read the book.

    James Franco is a unique actor and director and I for one appreciate his overall efforts. Oh, Franco also appears to be an excellent movie critic, so may be that's why the additional hate comes Franco.

    Truly looking forward to seeing this movie and hoping is successful.

  • tom | May 21, 2013 11:24 AM

    No, I was simply trying to describe what I found to be an ugly pallet. I don't have contempt for Franco the person, but as he's using his own celebrity in all of his work -- one way or another -- I don't think you can divorce his work from his name.

  • THOR | May 21, 2013 7:01 AMReply

    "as his first directorial feature"

    Not only could you have consulted IMDb, it also should be common knowledge for anyone interested in film that Franco's directed many movies.

  • tom | May 21, 2013 1:06 PM

    Yeah, no excuses for such errors, though the usual Cannes sleep deprivation may have had something to do with it. I've seen "Interior. Leather Bar" so I know it's not his first feature (though that is co-directed). I meant first prime-time feature, basically; I don't think the others qualify, do you?

  • Niall | May 21, 2013 6:19 AMReply

    Franco has actually been writing, directing and co-directing shorts, features and documentaries since the mid-naughties. A look at IMDB suggests As I Lay Dying is his sixth feature as director.

  • TOM | May 21, 2013 6:28 AM

    Thanks, Niall. My, er, bad.

  • gene | May 21, 2013 3:46 AMReply

    Actors and actresses have to understand, that every thespian is not made for directing. It truly takes a skill set to do directing. Leave directing for the experience directors.

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