When the history of his career is written, James Franco will either be known as a jack of all trades (and, perhaps, master of none) or a true example of a post-modern renaissance man. No other actor with his matinee idol good looks has parlayed his particular slacker/stoner/star vibe into a legitimate career as a writer/director/performer/author/activist/thinker and artist, dabbling in everything from short fiction to theater, film both mainstream and experimental, and roles both traditional and slightly out of the ordinary. He is just as comfortable mocking his own "is he gay?" aura on Comedy Central as he is dishing out the hissable villain dialogue alongside Jason Statham in the recent thriller Homefront.
From his days as a James Dean wannabe to his work on Freaks and Geeks and his mainstream breakthrough as Spider-man's pal/eventual enemy Harry Osborn, he's defied any attempt at typecasting or labeling. Just this year alone, he made fun of his image (This is the End, the aforementioned CC Roast), elevated the caricature of a white rapper to delightfully dizzying heights (in Harmony Korine's brilliant Spring Breakers) played Hugh Hefner in a biopic about Linda Lovelace and made a weird docu-drama about the rumored missing footage from William Friedkin's controversial film Cruising (Interior. Leather Bar). Oh, and there was a little trip to Oz that he took with the Evil Dead's Sam Raimi.
For his latest excursion into obtuse professional choices, Franco has decided to adapt William Faulkner's "unfilmable" novel As I Lay Dying. A decidedly low budget affair, the Oscar-nominated star sheds much of his goofball glamour to play Darl Bundren, one of the Bundren clan sworn to uphold the last wishes of their sick mother, Addie (Beth Grant). Co-writing with Matthew Rager as well as sitting behind the lens, Franco tells the story of a family uprooted from their rural country life and carrying their mother's coffin all the way to Missouri. Deconstructing the complicated plot from the book (which is also told by several contradictory narrative voices), we watch as husband Anse (Tim Blake Nelson) gathers up the brood - sons Cash (Jim Parrack), Darl, Jewel (Logan Marshall-Green) and Vardaman (Brady Permenter) and daughter Dewey Dell (Ahna O'Reilly) - and sets off on a perilous journey where they come across tragedies both natural and personal.
By taking the tale down to its bare bones, by relinquishing much of what made Faulkner's work so magical on paper, Franco cracks the code and delivers up a small, subtle winner. It's the antithesis of what you'd expect from such a flamboyant figure, but this is one actor whose always been a humanist at heart. He's much more interested in people than the particulars of pace or purpose, and this renders As I Lay Dying a delicate character study where the modern motifs each actor embodies are used to emphasize, not extinguish, the period piece mood and temperament. Faulkner, a determined alcoholic, did the same thing in his novels. He used experimental, contemporary techniques to cut his stories down to episodes of interpersonal enlightenment. Franco follows suit, creating an ensemble piece where the epiphanies are more important than the events.
His cast is quite capable of delivering on his designs. As Addie, Beth Grant makes the most of her limited screen time, while Danny McBride does the same with what amounts to an extended cameo. Of the sons, Franco and Jim Parrack have the best overall character arc, even if it requires a bit of nauseating bloodletting to get through them. Perhaps the real standout is Tim Blake Nelson as Anse. Lost in his bumpkin persona and fiery in this clueless determination, it is within this performance that we see the real reason behind Addie's request. In some ways, she wants her remaining family go on a Pilgrim's Progress, a series of struggles (in this case, via a burial journey) so that they can better understand themselves and each other. In addition, they can also suffer as she did. Of course, in Faulkner's (and Franco's) hands, such self discovery can be damaging.