Carrying the dubious distinction of being a film that managed to try our patience after just five minutes, “Maladies” is for us best summed up in one word: wasteful. It is wasteful of the considerable talents of a fabulous cast, wasteful of a pleasingly off-kilter visual approach, and wasteful of our time. It is even wasteful of a director whose instincts, no matter how much he may want to kick against them, seem to lie more in the direction of the kind of classical, straightforward story he is at pains here to not give us. Nope, this is a film that Comments On The Creative Process, and Refers To Itself As A Film and Makes Statements About Sexuality And Gender and Has Its Characters Conflate With Their Real-Life Personas — this is nothing so fusty and old-hat as a classically told story. Which is not to say we’re against the idea of filmmakers playing with the form or challenging norms, but only if the result is playful and/or challenging. This is neither — ultimately it’s alienating and not a little dull, in love with the idea of trying to say something deep and meaningful, but simply not having the necessary wisdom. In fact, it only ever connects in the small moments that fall through the cracks of the supposed formal and thematic experimentation — when the fine actors are allowed to walk and talk like real human beings, rather than a collection of tropes.
It’s a film borne of director Carter’s previous association with James Franco, and it’s easy to see how it appealed to the star, who never seems happier these day than when reprising, repackaging or reformatting his life and persona in the name of art. Indeed their last collaboration was on the film/project/concept/imagineered entity/thingie “Erased James Franco” in which the actor reenacted scenes from his career and also riffed, for some reason, on Todd Haynes‘ “Safe.” Here he plays an ex-soap actor named James, and clips from Franco’s stint on “General Hospital” are used for the soap-within-the-film. Of course that appearance was itself approached as something of a concept art project, and so we reach the event horizon of metatextuality and the universe deletes itself in a fizz of singularities and Higgs bosons. In fairness to Franco however, he does here resist the temptation to slide back into his default glazed, drawly slacker persona, and turns in a performance that is, by his standards, pretty manic, and really quite committed. And in the rare moments when the intermittent voiceover (which only he can hear, naturally) lets up and he’s not flinging things off shelves or listening to dial tones, especially when playing off the likes of Catherine Keener or David Strathairn, he achieves a simple depth we hadn’t seen a lot of from him before. It’s the difference between acting and representing — and since we’re not sure we’re so very interested anymore in what Franco stands for, we just wish he’d do more of the acting thing that he looks to be pretty good at.
James lives with his friend Catherine (Keener being better than the material, again) and his sister Patricia (Fallon Goodson). Catherine is an artist and occasional cross-dresser, Patricia is a twitchy oddball in another of this Berlinale’s deliberately obvious wigs, and James is attempting to write his novel while suffering some sort of breakdown which causes him to spazz out in drugstores and steal pocketfuls of shaving cream. Set seemingly in the early ’60s (though that would mean the references to the Jim Jones mass suicide are an anachronism, or that the film has no real period or, oh who the fuck cares), and we are by the sea, with a view of New York City across the beach. A mellow, wry baritone voiceover (nicely cast) converses with James, dispensing faux-wisdom and sometimes acting as his conscience, sometimes his muse, sometimes maybe his torturer. And then there’s Delmar (David Strathairn), the kind but lonely next door neighbor with a gentle crush on Franco, that dates back to his days on the soap.
Strathairn deserves a paragraph all his own as the film’s MVP. He’s an actor we can never get enough of, and here his role benefits from being the least meta and the most “traditional” — he is not playing a version of himself or dealing in notions of subjectivity or whatever, he’s simply a great actor delivering a script that, for him at least, contains a handful of cherishable human moments. In fact, during a scene in which an impromptu dance happens around the living room, the film briefly forgets its pretensions and, almost despite itself, holds on him: a sweet and relatable shot of the outsider looking in. For a moment we had the oddest sensation somewhere deep in our torso, which we later identified as “feeling something.”
It was really the only time that happened. Any small momentum is lost by the device of dividing the film into titled sections, each headed with a line of willfully opaque and enigmatic, would-be “deep” dialogue. A chapter heading of “Everything needs to be made and everything needs to be made by someone” was bad enough, but by the time we were down to the oft-repeated “At point A you are one person. At point B, you are another person. At point C, you are again transformed into yet another facet, angle, shard, area, zone,” we basically wanted to punch the film in the face. So while we may have been tempted to nudge this grade up a little due to some strong performances, that instinct is instantly countermanded by how annoyed we are that they weren’t served better, and just how bored we were. [D+]