A couple of weekends ago, I caught not one, but two films starring James Franco: Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful and Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers. It would be an understatement to say that it was a pretty bizarre experience. Seeing Franco’s smiling mug in black-and-white, 3-D and super-saturated Technicolor all in 48 hours was probably as close to an acid trip as one can have (without actually being on acid). Both films left an impression, but I still haven’t decided if what kind of trip I had: good or bad.
In Oz, Franco was far better playing the smarmy con-man, Oscar Diggs, than the savior with a heart of gold. I think that part of the problem is that Franco’s all-face-consuming smile is the same when it’s put on and when it’s genuine. The only time Franco ever seems completely comfortable is when he’s putting on a show, either trying to woo unsuspecting women, performing magic at a run-down Kansas sideshow, or in the grand finale. Though this takes up a good portion of the film, the “serious” moments in between often don’t ring true. I never really believe that he is finding his true nature as a good man. But the problem is not entirely Franco’s. The film itself has so many ups and downs, it’s hard to completely embrace it (the way most movie lover’s do the 1939 classic). The opening black-and-white sequence goes on a little too long with a few too many cheesy sound effects and musical cues to sell the attempt to recreate an early 20th century film atmosphere. The best sequence is when Diggs is on stage and a young cripple girl (Joey King) believes he has the power to cure her. We then move, via hot air balloon and tornado, to Oz and the film changes to super-saturated colors and surround sound in an attempt to capture the same magic of its predecessor. This opening also goes on a little too long. I wasn’t drawn in to the supposed love story between Diggs and Theodora (Mila Kunis). The story and pace picks up a little when they arrive at the Emerald City and Theodora’s sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) is introduced and this upswing carries through to the introduction of China Girl (voiced by Joey King), a little china doll and only survivor of China Town who has had her legs broken. With a couple of dabs of magic “glue,” Diggs is able to fix her in a nice companion scene to the earlier magic show debacle.
However, just as it seems we’re off and running, the pace begins to drag again with the introduction of Glinda (played by the extremely capable Michelle Williams) who is simply too bland to be interesting. However, just when I was ready to give up again, Theodora’s true self is revealed, a green-skinned cackling monster that is a great homage to Margaret Hamilton’s original. This plus the final battle between the wicked witches and the various inhabitants of Oz (more than just Munchkins in this version) almost save the film. I say “almost” because there were simply too many ups, downs, and hiccups in the pacing for me to ever be completely committed. Is it a bad film? No. But will it live on to be a classic like the 1939 original? Not likely. If more time had been spent on the magic of the story rather than the super-saturated 3-D, the film would have been much better, evidenced by the fact that the final sequence with Oz projecting himself using “primitive” equipment is more magical than the digital 3-D.
Franco plays a different kind of savior in Korine’s Spring Breakers. He’s a drug-dealing, wannabe rapper who bails out four young college girls who find themselves in their own version of Oz: St. Petersburg, FL during spring break. The basic plot is that Faith, Candy, Brit, and Cotty (played respectively by Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, and Rachel Korine) have a dream of going to Florida for spring break. The problem is that they don’t have any money. So, they do want any normal iGeneration kid would do: they don ski masks and rob a local restaurant (cause that’s what Pumpkin and Honey Bunny do in Pulp Fiction, right?). They then head to Florida where they live the dream/nightmare that is spring break: getting drunk, riding mopeds in bikinis, and having parties that would rival the blood and circus of ancient Rome, while being sure to call mom or grandma to tell them what a beautiful magical place Florida is. The party seems to come to an end when they are arrested for drug possession and bailed out by Alien (Franco). They party continues, but becomes even weirder and more intense as Alien welcomes into his world where Scarface is on a 24 hour loop. Faith, unable to handle this new direction, returns home, followed shortly by Cotty who is injured (I’ll leave it at that so as not to spoil it for anyone who has not yet seen the film). Candy and Brit both realize that they are Alien’s soul mates and stay until the bitter and violent end.
The plot of the film would take only about 30 minutes of screen time, but through looping and repetition, it stretches out to 94. The film wants to be a commentary on the desire of the iGeneration to live in the ever-present, where life is “just like a video game.” The problem is, there should have been maybe 45-60 minutes of plot. As is, it also goes on way too long and ends up being just as empty as its characters. Richard Roeper called it “the most unforgettable film of the year so far.” He’s absolutely correct. However, it’s primarily unforgettable not because of its incredible images, scathing commentary, or witty dialogue. It’s unforgettable in the way that a bad pop song is unforgettable: the incessant repetition of lyrics and radio play. If you hear the line, “What are you scared, scaredy-pants?” repeated over and over, you’re going to remember it. The film also fails because the person we think is our narrative center, Faith, disappears and never returns as does Cotty. Leaving Candy and Brit, who are played by the two weakest actors in the film. The strongest performance actually comes from Franco, who seems to always be at his best when playing slimy, smarmy, or at least fringe characters. His Alien is the only wholly believable character in the movie, not because empty-headed spring breakers don’t exist, but because I didn’t buy Gomez, Hudgens, Benson, or Korine as either empty-headed spring breakers or street-wise criminals who are amazingly accurate shots (you have to the see the ending). Franco’s Alien is believable as a self-made, if empty-headed stoner/beach bum/wannabe gangsta rapper.
Though both films left me a little empty, I do think Franco is a completely capable actor I’m anxiously awaiting to see what he can do behind the camera. The recent announcement that his adaptation of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying will be screened in the Un Certain Regard portion of this year’s Cannes Film Festival is, for me, a sign of good things to come.