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James Franco’s Movie Column: Fake Penises Aren’t the Only Funny Thing About ‘The Greasy Strangler’

The writer-director-actor explains why this grotesque new movie is smarter than it looks.

“The Greasy Strangler”

James + Semaj is a column where James Franco talks to his reverse self, Semaj, about new films. Rather than a conventional review, it is place where James and Semaj can muse about ideas that the films provoke. James loves going to the movies and talking about them. But a one-sided take on a movie, in print, might be misconstrued as a review. As someone in the industry it could be detrimental to James’s career if he were to review his peers, because unlike the book industry—where writers review other writer’s books—the film industry is highly collaborative, and a bad review of a peer could create problems. So, assume that James (and Semaj) love all these films. What they’re interested in talking about is all the ways the films inspire them, and make them think. James is me, and Semaj is the other side of me. 

This week, James and Semaj discuss “The Greasy Strangler,” which opens in limited release today. Just FYI: The guys have been fighting a bit . . .

James: Are we getting along again?

Semaj: I don’t know, you tell me.

James: Well, I don’t want to fight, I want to talk only about movies. But you get super sensitive.

Semaj: Fine, whatever. What is this movie?

James: I don’t know where this thing came from other than Elijah Wood is a producer. It’s so weird that I don’t even know how conscious the filmmakers are of what they’ve made.

Semaj: You think this thing was just a fluke? A happy accident like Tommy Weiseau’s “The Room”?

James: Tommy Wiseau claims that he meant to make “The Room” into a drama/comedy that would achieve cult status.

Semaj: As they say in “The Greasy Strangler”: “Bullshit artist!”

James: I agree. I think “The Room” was the result of Tommy trying to make a heartfelt, personal drama that would show the world how he really felt and it all went so wrong in all the right ways that it became something that people want to watch again and again and laugh at. Tommy took credit for what it is after the fact.

Semaj: It still doesn’t diminish its power. Sometimes we aren’t aware of the way something will resonate with audiences, like “Breaking Bad.” That was just a small, dark drama on a little known network, and it became a worldwide phenomenon.

James: So, you think “The Greasy Strangler” is just an accidental conjunction of quirky badness that is so unwittingly felicitous the movie is good despite the intentions of the filmmakers?

Semaj: I don’t know what they were aware of, but I think that the style of the film is just that: it’s meant to look random and amateur in the best way.

James: Yeah, I think they were fully aware of what they were making, from the casting to the awkward pacing: the perfectly tone-deaf performances, the long pauses between lines and the way they argue over ridiculously petty things to the point of tears — such as whether someone is a “Bullshit artist,” or a “Horseshit artist.” I think they were fully conscious of what they made. I mean, Elijah Wood was in there somewhere, and he was in one of the greatest franchises of all time.

Semaj: Okay, so what have they made?

James: This movie is “Napoleon Dynamite” if “Napoleon Dynamite” hadn’t been made by Mormons.

Semaj: Meaning that it’s quirky and funny, but highly sexualized?

James: Yes, lots of boobs, and butts, and fake penises of all sizes.

Semaj: No, only two sizes: one extremely large and triangular; and one minuscule and red.

James: Whoa. Detailed descriptions of the penises, buddy.

Semaj: Shut up. They’re so present throughout the movie they’re impossible to miss.

"The Greasy Strangler"

“The Greasy Strangler”

James: That’s for sure. It’s a father-son team competing for the same woman and both walking around in tight 70’s-style underpants, or with no underpants at all showing full frontal on the fake dicks.

Semaj: I can’t imagine Napoleon Dynamite ever showing his penis.

James: No shit, Sherlock, that’s what I’m saying — it’s a sexualized version of “Napoleon.” Or like a Wes Anderson movie with no Bill Murray, no budget, and lots of talk about cum and disco.

Semaj: You mean you’re reminded of Wes Anderson because of the wide frame, flat dioramic shots, the quirky dialogue and the funny costumes that are almost like uniforms. They wear these pink shorts/pink shirt combos as uniforms when they’re giving their bullshit history of disco tours.                               

James: Yeah, for sure. But it has something of the Jared Hess wide-eyed/mouth-breather style of acting that is much more “Napoleon” than “Rushmore.”

Semaj: I know what you mean. I keep asking myself if these are actors, or if they were people found on the street and pulled into the movie and pushed to do all this insane stuff.

James: The guy that plays the son, Big Brayden, Sky Elobar — to be clear, Big Braden is the character and Sky Elobar is the actor — has actually worked with Jared Hess! Maybe that’s where he picked up the “Napoleon” acting style. And he worked with “Greasy” director Jim Hosking before, on a short called “Renegades.”

Semaj: What the hell is that?

James: I have no idea, but Sky plays “King of the Pimps.” So imagine an awkward, dumpy, balding white guy who talks like a mopey little kid as a pimp.

"The Greasy Strangler"

“The Greasy Strangler”

Semaj: I guess you’re assuming that Sky is just like his character in “The Greasy Strangler.” Of course, people do that to you all the time: They assume that you smoke weed because you’re in “Pineapple Express,” or that you’re gay because you’re in “Milk.”

James: Okay, sorry I assumed that Sky is actually balding and awkward. Maybe that was all an act. He’s a regular Daniel Day Lewis. But anyway, I guess Sky and the Hosking are a kind of team. Like DeNiro and Scorsese.

Semaj: You mean like DiCaprio and Scorsese. Welcome to the 2000’s, dork.

James: In any case, we’re making this movie sound disgusting.

Semaj: Well it is pretty disgusting, considering that the dad goes around putting extra grease on everything he eats — in his coffee, on his hotdogs, bacon rolls, grapefruit, sometimes on people. And then there is a killer who — surprise, surprise — goes around covered in grease strangling people, popping out their eyes, and eating them.

James: That makes it sound like the latest Tim Burton movie, “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children,” where the monsters on stilts — spoiler alert — go around eating people’s eyes.

Semaj: Lots of eye-eating these days.

James: Okay, well, despite how gross the subject matter is, it’s done in a way that makes it incredibly funny and enjoyable.

Semaj: If you like gross out humor, juvenile humor, dick jokes, and quirky weirdness.

James: Duh, those are all the best kinds of funny.

Semaj: I did laugh all the way through even though the plot was pretty damn thin.

James: That’s not the point. I think the movie simplifies the superficial level: using a minimal amount of shots; a stilted and affected acting style; a script that is absurd, repetitive, and hilariously dark. I mean, all they seem to talk about is food, tell lies about disco history to tourists, and call out each others lies by accusing each other of being “Bullshit artists,” over and over and over again. But by making things so simple it allows the filmmakers to address essential issues.

Semaj: You’re on a role with this one, brother, keep going . . .

James: It’s about what so many serious movies are about: sex, trauma, and our inner demons.

Semaj: Right. On its surface, it’s about a strange killer and his strange ways. But beneath, it’s about a son struggling with an abusive, overbearing dad.

James: You’re right, it is about that. I actually find it really inspiring.

"The Greasy Strangler"

“The Greasy Strangler”

Semaj: And it’s also about the secret demons that we keep hidden inside.

James: And about how two people at odds with each other can find common ground.

Semaj: Like us, I guess.

James: And it’s about big fake dicks.

Semaj: And little fake dicks.

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