Photo by Heather Kaplan
James Franco is having a moment. It began this fall with his dual-starring role on The Deuce, the new HBO drama by David Simon and George Pecorinos, where he plays twin brothers working in different facets of the pornography industry in New York in the early 1970s. After garnering critical success, he’s quickly following that up with the release of The Disaster Artist, where he stars as Tommy Wiseau in a film dramatizing the making of The Room, the cult classic that plays at midnight in arthouse theaters across the country. Early rave reviews have complimented Franco for losing himself in the role of Wiseau, an individual who made up for his lack of talent with ambition, and achieved notoriety though it was never clear whether he was in on the joke.
With those two roles, Franco is in the midst of a renaissance, a supposed comeback from the myriad of seemingly endless roles throughout the past half-decade since his now legendary role in the 2012 Harmony Korine film Spring Breakers. For those who may not have been paying attention, Franco has over 60 acting credits in the past five years, working on everything from blockbuster comedies and franchise films to a wide array of micro-budget films that often went straight to DVD or VOD. While his mainstream movies have done well, such Oz the Great and Powerful and This Is The End, he’s been in dozens of films that barely made a dent in the box office. For every film like The Interview that led to an international crisis, there are multiple roles in films that don’t even make it into theaters.
Throughout the early 2010s, after his Academy Award nomination for 127 Hours, he fell into writing and academia, attending graduate school programs in New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. He wrote short stories, directed dance-theater, lectured at UCLA, and even started a band with Tim O’Keefe called Daddy. It’s seemingly impossible for him to slow down, and he tries his hand at nearly every style, from a recurring role on the soap opera General Hospital to directing and starring in multiple adaptations of Faulkner novels. A chameleon who is impossible to pin down, Franco’s extremely prolific output reveals an actor who must hate downtime.
In the many film projects he’s undertaken, he begs the question as to the why of it all. He often picks interesting roles, playing gay porn producers, historical figures, overgrown frat boys, and even a man who brutally murdered his wife and children. His interest lies in the both highbrow and lowbrow, writing and starring in a remake of the campy vampire film Mother May I Sleep With Danger for Lifetime, and a year later directing a Steinbeck adaptation starring Robert Duvall. It can’t even be said that he loses himself in every role, as most of the times the audience is acutely aware that they’re watching James Franco.
Much like the tale of Tommy Wiseau, it is often difficult to tell the truth about James Franco. At times, he seems like a brilliant actor who constantly takes on roles to challenge himself and grow. Other times, it can seem as if he’s a hack, sleepwalking through roles and saying yes to every project he can to overcompensate. To find out, we sampled 12 of his smaller films from the past five years, none of which made more than $5 million at the box office, to try and determine whether Franco is a great artist of our times or a charlatan throwing everything at the wall and hoping something sticks. For each film, we viewed it through the following categories:
Plot (in 127 words or less): A brief description of the film.
Freaks and Geeks: Franco frequently collaborates with the same people in his various roles, and this category looks at whether the film draws on any of those relationships.
True Story: Many of Franco’s best roles are based on historical figures, classic works of literature, or short stories he wrote himself, and this category looks at how that impacted the movie.
The Deuce: Never slowing down, Franco is often a writer, producer, or director on many of the films he’s starred in the past five years.
Look At My Shit! Named after his showstopping monologue from Spring Breakers, his last great role, this category looks at whether he has that one memorable scene that leaves a lasting impression.
Artist or Disaster? Finally, we conclude as to whether the role displays his talent or his poor judgment.
Watching each of these reveals an actor who clearly cares deeply about his craft, with flashes of brilliance throughout, but also phones it in through lesser roles, someone as hard to pin down as Wiseau himself.
True Story (2015)
Plot (in 127 Words or Less): Franco plays Christian Longo, a man arrested in 2001 for the murder of his wife and four children. When he was apprehended in Cancun, he had taken the identity of Michael Finkel, a disgraced journalist recently fired from the New York Times for intentionally misattributing information gleaned from a source. While awaiting trial, Longo meets Finkel (played here by Jonah Hill), and agrees to grant him exclusive rights to tell his story in exchange for writing lessons. The film covers their meetings, where it’s never quite certain who is using who as Longo maintains his innocence.
Freaks and Geeks: While Franco and Hill have always been key players in the Apatow circle, this is the first time they’ve worked this closely together. Apart from small roles in Knocked Up and Sausage Party, their only real collaboration before this was This Is The End.
True Story: As you can probably tell, this is based on a true story, and an outrageous one at that. The details of the events do most of the heavy lifting for this entertaining but vapid film.
The Deuce: As one of two leads, Franco’s role did not extend beyond acting this time.
Look At My Shit! True Story’s best scene is when Franco’s Longo testifies in his defense on the stand during his murder trial. Over a riveting monologue, he uses the writing tips given to him by Finkel to construct an elaborate lie about the killing of his family to attempt to win over the jury. While his gambit fails, it reveals the true purpose of his meetings with Finkel were to polish his tales, and his inner sociopath is put on full display.
Artist or Disaster? Franco seemingly sleepwalks through his performance as Longo with a dispassionate blank stare, but that emptiness serves the role well, as he nails the outward façade of this truly evil individual who seems to have no remorse for his heinous crimes. Though Hill’s stilted performance tries too hard for the movie to really work (and it wastes Felicity Jones in a thankless role as a wife with nothing to do), Franco’s role as the villain here stands as one of his more memorable.
Burn Country (2016)
Plot (in 127 Words or Less): Burn Country centers around Dominic Rains’ Osman, an Afghan wartime journalist exiled from his country living in Northern California, taking a menial job working the police blotter while working his way through a backwoods crime mystery. Franco plays Lindsay, an endearing burnout who bonds with Osman before disappearing under suspect circumstances, leading the reporter to follow his investigative nature. Franco takes on a slacker NoCal accent that never quite sticks, but adds levity as an ambassador to Osman, welcoming him to the history and inner workings of the insular town in his brief time onscreen, serving as a catalyst for the remainder of the action.
Freaks and Geeks: This marks one of many collaborations between Franco and director Ian Olds. Olds edited Franco’s adaptation of As I Lay Dying and co-directed Francophrenia, a film that re-used footage from Franco’s work on the soap opera General Hospital.
True Story: Though a fictional story, Burn Country drew inspiration from Fixer, a 2006 documentary directed by Olds that centered on a relationship between an American journalist and the Afghan reporter who worked closely with him during the war.
The Deuce: Franco has an executive producer credit on the film in addition to starring in it.
Look At My Shit! When we first meet Franco’s Lindsay, he’s getting into a fight with someone, but his best scene is during a laid back car ride through town where he tells winding stories and serves as a guide to Osman, walking him through the oral history of this close-knit, deceptively calm community.
Artist or Disaster? The film itself broaches on some intriguing themes, notably the parallel between Osman’s journey as an outsider through a crime-ridden tribal community in Northern California and the American experience in the war. The second half is a plodding mess, and Franco’s limited time onscreen is more of a distraction that hews a little too closely to his role as a stoner in Pineapple Express. While not a full on disaster, it’s not the most memorable of Franco’s supporting roles.
Plot (in 127 Words or Less): Yosemite tells the meandering tale of three fifth grade students living in the suburbs of Palo Alto through intersecting vignettes. Franco only appears in the first half hour of the film as the estranged father of two boys attempting to bond through a camping trip. In a segment that could be its own short film, Franco takes on the role of a father trying to connect with his children but doesn’t quite know how to, treading a line between friendship and discipline that makes it seem like he doesn’t truly understand either.
Freaks and Geeks: The film marks his second time working with director Gabrielle Demeestere, who also directed the 2012 film The Color of Time, in which Franco starred as poet C.K. Williams
True Story: Yosemite marks the second of three films based on Franco’s Palo Alto story collection.
The Deuce: Franco had both a writing and executive producer credit on the film along with starring in it.
Look At My Shit! There aren’t any showy monologues here, but a scene where Franco’s character tries to explain his sobriety to his young children is understated and touching.
Artist or Disaster? Of all his various movies, Yosemite falls in the middle of the pack. As an adaptation of loosely connected short stories, it’s an intriguing curiosity even if it doesn’t quite leave an impression.
Plot (in 127 Words or Less): Goat tells the story of two brothers, Ben Schnetzer’s Brad and Nick Jonas’ Ben. The film starts with the 19-year old Brad robbed and assaulted following a party. After spending the summer recovering in isolation, he starts college where Brett encourages him to join his fraternity, both to find his place at college and to reassert his manhood after being attacked. As the hazing rituals become progressively more harsh and deranged, the film offers an incisive look into the toxic masculinity of college frats, leading to a climactic tragedy that reveals the systemic dangers of the whole operation.
Freaks and Geeks: Goat’s screenplay was written by David Gordon Green, who directed both Pineapple Express and Your Highness.
True Story: While not based on a true story, Goat offers one of the most realistic examinations of frat life, a corrective to the years of carefree comedies glorifying the lifestyle over decades.
The Deuce: Franco served as a producer on Goat along with his brief role as an alumni of the fraternity.
Look At My Shit! Franco has a brief but memorable monologue as an alumni visiting for the weekend, entrancing the pledges with a rousing speech about brotherhood. In his brief time onscreen, he both embodies the platonic ideal of the concept of male friendship while also portraying a man trying desperately to cling onto his college glory days while barely concealing the disappointment in his life since.
Artist or Disaster? Though his role is small, Goat is easily one of the best films featuring Franco in the past five years. His appearance is important as it takes an icon of frat-bro comedy and uses that to puncture the façade. Barely more than a cameo, Goat shows how Franco’s skills can blossom when used effectively.
Plot (in 127 Words or Less): The third and final film in his unofficial “Palo Alto” trilogy, Memoria tells the story of Ivan, an angst-ridden teenager who drifts aimlessly through life, the black sheep in a group of friends who frequently find themselves in trouble. Franco has a supporting role as Mr. Wyckoff, the friendly English teacher trying to get through to Ivan, encouraging him to indulge his creative side. Though a simple premise, Memoria taps into Ivan’s repressed rage artfully, presenting his frustration and entitlement in an intriguing manner before leading to a disturbing conclusion.
Freaks and Geeks: Nina Ljeti, who co-directed and co-wrote the film, acted in multiple movies with Franco such as Child of God, About Cherry, and The Institute.
True Story: Memoria is one of three films based off of Palo Alto, the short story collection written by Franco in 2010.
The Deuce: In addition to writing the story the movie was based on, Franco served as an executive producer for Memoria.
Look At My Shit! The film has plenty of memorable scenes that capture key moments in adolescence, though none of which include Franco. His best scene takes place when his character recognizes signs of trouble in Ivan and tries to reach out as the teenager is sulking in the restroom, meaning well while also skirting the line of professional conduct.
Artist or Disaster? Running only 70 minutes, this film goes by quickly but leaves an impression, especially its disturbing ending that walks up to the line of becoming an after-school special before turning into something more introspective, even if it’s not really a showcase of Franco’s acting.
As I Lay Dying (2013)
Plot (in 127 Words or Less): The film is a faithful adaptation of William Faulkner’s classic about a family’s trek to Jefferson, Mississippi bury their recently departed matriarch. A wagon ride carrying a body across the countryside quickly reveals the ulterior motives of each family member, as disasters and life-threatening injuries lead to secrets being revealed. Franco stars as Darl Bundren, with Logan Marshall-Green, Tim Blake Nelson, Ahna O’Reilly, and Danny McBride rounding out the supporting cast.
Freaks and Geeks: The film marks one of many team ups between Franco and McBride, albeit one of the few that’s not a stoner comedy.
True Story: Franco hews closely to Faulkner’s novel in with an ambitious experiment that never quite works.
The Deuce: As I Lay Dying is the first of two Faulkner adaptations that Franco not only starred in, but directed.
Look At My Shit! Franco gets his chance for an outsized performance in the climax, where Darl is arrested for burning down the barn and taken to the asylum. He gets to play both deranged and remorseful in a brief scene that almost makes up for how dull the film is.
Artist or Disaster? An early endeavor by Franco as a director, his use of split screen displays a knack to try and do something fresh with the source material while still remaining faithful, but for the most part this film is an overwrought slog to sit through.
Palo Alto (2014)
Plot (in 127 Words or Less): A coming-of-age film told from different perspectives, the film takes on three teenagers in the Palo Alto suburbs trying to find themselves. Directed by Gia Coppola, the film was a breakthrough role for Emma Roberts, who starred as April, a girl whose crush on her teacher evolves into an inappropriate relationship, played by Franco. Jack Kilmer and Nat Wolff also star as Teddy and Fred, two boys who act out the pains of adolescence as their friendship devolves into jealousy through affairs, crushes, and car accidents.
Freaks and Geeks: Franco would go on to work with Wolff, Emma Roberts, and newcomer Keegan Allen over the next few years in In Dubious Battle, I Am Michael, and King Cobra, respectively.
True Story: Grossing just over $1 million in the box office, and with a soundtrack featuring original compositions by Dev Hynes, Palo Alto was the most high profile of the three films inspired by Franco’s short story collection.
The Deuce: Though based on his own book, Franco’s only credit on the film is his supporting role.
Look At My Shit! An early scene of Franco’s teacher tutoring Roberts’ April shows the manipulation he employed as a teacher in his mid-30s luring a high school student into a relationship. It offers a glimpse of the underlying menace he can display behind his boyish charm. A real life instance of Franco getting caught trying to hook up with a teenager on Instagram, which he sheepishly apologized for on Live with Kelly and Michael, makes this role a bit more disturbing in retrospect.
Artist or Disaster? Palo Alto is a sharp movie and a breakthrough for Roberts before her time on American Horror Story. While Franco’s role as a creepy, predatory teacher certainly leaves an impression, it’s more as a foil to Roberts rather than a standout on his own.
In Dubious Battle (2016)
Plot (in 127 Words or Less): Adapted from the classic John Steinbeck novel, In Dubious Battle is set in 1936, telling the story of two members of the Industrial Workers of the World who lead a strike in an orchard. Nat Wolff plays Jim Nolan, a young comrade who falls under the wing of Franco’s Mac McLeod, a veteran organizer who together help organize and lead a labor strike to try and obtain fair wages. The period piece is a largely expository one that portrays the plight of workers, telling an important story about the struggles by unions to obtain fair working conditions, more informative than entertaining.
Freaks and Geeks: The film features a remarkably impressive cast, with supporting roles by Robert Duvall, Vincent D’Onofrio, Josh Hutcherson, and Sam Shepherd. In addition to them, Franco also reunites with Wolff, Ed Harris, Bryan Cranston, Ahna O’Reilly, and Selena Gomez, making it seem like he called in nearly every favor he had.
True Story: This adaptation of Steinbeck’s novel hews closely to its source material, adding some general facts about the labor strikes as a whole in its postscript.
The Deuce: Franco directed this one as well, adding another notch to his collection of literary adaptations. Like his Faulkner adaptations, this feels like a film for high school teachers to put on when they run out of lesson plans.
Look At My Shit! Franco’s McLeod often uses lies and manipulations to further his goals, as noble as they might be. A key example of this comes from a speech he gives to the orchard workers before convincing them to join him on strike, stealing the details from a story of Nolan’s father and pretending like they’re his own personal story to garner sympathy. The scene displays one of his many deceptions in service of the greater good, adding a layer of moral complexity to a battle between laborers and owners that is largely cut and dry.
Artist or Disaster? While not a full disaster, given the stellar supporting cast and compelling source material, this film had the potential to be much better than the end result.
Good People (2014)
Plot (in 127 Words or Less): Nearly a decade after his role in films like Flyboys, Annapolis, and the Spider-Man trilogy, Good People is a strange retread to the days of James Franco, action star. Franco plays Tom, a handyman living in London with his wife Anna, played by Kate Hudson. Tom and Anna are deeply in debt when they discover the tenant who rents their basement mysteriously dead, as well as a couple hundred thousand Euros hidden away. They decide to keep the money to relieve their woes, a poor decision that pulls them into the middle of a turf war between rival crime lords, in way over their heads as a police officer played by Tom Wilkinson tries to help them.
Freaks and Geeks: Neither Hudson nor Wilkinson could save this mess of a movie, which surprisingly doesn’t feature anyone that Franco works with often.
True Story: There’s nothing real about this story, which is about as by-the-numbers as an action film can be.
The Deuce: Franco only acts in this, a movie that seems like it had hopes of having a long shelf life in basic cable reruns if it wasn’t so patched together.
Look At My Shit! In an almost hilarious scene where we’re supposed to take Franco seriously as a John McClane-style badass, Franco’s Tom sets a trap for the multiple drug dealers after him, booby trapping his house and using nail guns and other power tools to somehow take down a group of purportedly apt villains.
Artist or Disaster? Good People is a pure disaster, what should make for a fun, campy B-movie gone awry, even with its creative methods of taking out it’s one dimensional villains.
King Cobra (2016)
Plot (in 127 Words or Less): King Cobra tells the remarkably lurid true story of Sean Paul Lockhart, played by newcomer Garrett Clayton, who at 17 began filming gay porn with Cobra Video, a small studio ran out of the nondescript suburban home of Bryan Kocis, played here by Christian Slater. The film starts with the beginning their relationship, when Kocis lured Sean out to start making pornography in his house under the stage name Brent Corrigan. Together, they make a collection of movies that make Lockhart a star in the industry, until contract disputes set a series of events in motion that lead in the grisly murder of Kocis in 2007. Franco stars as Joe Kerekes, a rival porn producer whose ambitions and jealousy lead to a series of rash decisions that culminate in said crime.
Freaks and Geeks: King Cobra marks the second collaboration with Justin Kelly. Between this and I Am Michael, their partnership has already proved one of the most fruitful of Franco’s career.
True Story: King Cobra depicts a true story with all its outrageous details, telling a story that’s more intriguing than nearly all of Franco’s fictional work. As intriguing as the movie is, Lockhard proclaimed that the film “bastardized” his life story.
The Deuce: Franco served as a producer in addition to his supporting role.
Look At My Shit! Our introduction to Franco’s Kerekes makes quite the impression, as within his first five minutes onscreen he embodies the role of the hyper-aggressive, controlling producer through a quick montage of drugs, porn, sex, and working out. He carries this manic sense of overcompensating throughout the film, where his tendency to take an over-the-top role suits the larger-than-life personality of its subject.
Artist or Disaster? While less of a showcase for Franco than I Am Michael, his second team-up with Kelly makes for one of his most entertaining roles yet, a salacious true story about a young porn star’s journey of self-discovery and overcoming abusive power dynamics.
Every Thing Will Be Fine (2015)
Plot (in 127 Words or Less): A winding tale of tragedy and forgiveness, Franco stars in the film as Tomas Eldan, a novelist living in rural Quebec whose already strenuous marriage falls apart after a horrific car accident where Eldan strikes and kills a young boy. After a period of grief and self-reflection, he remarries, starts a family, and grows into a successful novelist. Years later, the brother of the boy who killed tracks him down, confronting him for the fact that Eldan’s prizewinning novel was inspired by the accident, and together the two attempt to reconcile.
Freaks and Geeks: While he doesn’t work with any of his usual colleagues, the film has a strong pedigree with Charlotte Gainsbourg, Peter Stormare, and Rachel McAdams in supporting roles. The film also marked the first full-length dramatic feature of German director Wim Wenders in seven years.
True Story: This examination of grief is a purely fictional story.
The Deuce: Nothing to report here, as Franco only acted in the film.
Look At My Shit! Franco once again sleepwalks through this entire film, portraying Eldan with a detached, disaffected gaze the entire film. As a result, none of his scenes particularly stand out, as Franco seems as bored as the audience must be watching him.
Artist or Disaster? With Wenders directing, you’d think this film would be more intriguing that it turned out. Gainsbourg does the emotional heavy lifting in the role of the mother of the boy who died in the accident, but unfortunately Franco isn’t up to the task as her dramatic partner.
I Am Michael (2015)
Plot (in 127 Words or Less): Franco stars as Michael Glatze, who in the 1990s worked in San Francisco for XY Magazine, a notable publication for gay youth. Over the course of a decade, Glatze studied Christianity as he made documentaries and founded magazines about LGBT youth in America, before proclaiming himself straight and disavowing his old life entirely. After studying theology, he eventually became a pastor and founded a church in Wyoming, openly speaking out against homosexuality. The film is a biopic that covers the remarkably strange life of Glatze, devoting equal time to both his time as a gay activist and anti-gay member of the Christian right.
Freaks and Geeks: The first of two fruitful collaborations with Justin Kelly, I Am Michael also reunites Franco with Emma Roberts, who plays the woman Glatze eventually marries after converting to Christianity, their second (and more age-appropriate) onscreen relationship.
True Story: Of all the real-life figures he has portrayed, Glatze’s duality and hypocrisy gives Franco the opportunity to fully dive into the role of a man completely lost, trying his hardest to find somewhere to belong at the expense of having any ideals.
The Deuce: Franco served as a producer of the film in addition to starring in the titular role.
Look At My Shit! Franco doesn’t have one show-stopping scene, but rather displays his range throughout the film. One bewildering scene comes when Glatze is kicked out of a charity he used to be involved in for his newfound prejudiced views against homosexuality. In a short speech that basically nails the “so much for the tolerant left” meme, he invents a persecution complex for the fact that people don’t want to be associated with his own intolerance, with an example of just how much he doesn’t understand the consequences of his actions.
Artist or Disaster? Not only is I Am Michael the best of his small-budget feature films, it might be the best role Franco has ever taken on. The vapidity of Glatze gives Franco the chance to play a charlatan, a man who never feels comfortable anywhere, whether it’s an outspoken gay-rights publication or in theology classes in a religious school. Glatze didn’t do anything half-heartedly, throwing himself fully in either direction even if it betrayed his own nature. As an actor who makes curious decisions and is hard to pin down, Franco is the perfect choice to play Glatze, and the role proves that even for the dozens of mediocre films he stars in, every once in awhile his talents shine.