Like his other collaboration with James Franco, King Cobra, Justin Kelly’s I Am Michael provides further—and unsettling—evidence that the late 1990s and early aughts are indeed so far behind us that their visual signifiers can give a film “period-piece” status. Such details as desktop computer towers, diary-style blogging, MySpace pages, Matthew Shepard’s death, frosted tips, and ecstasy-fueled raves put us face-to-face with the sheer abyss between our hyper-digital present and what feels like only yesterday.
Setting a story in such a world, that of a deceivingly “only yesterday” aura, could elicit pathos-filled humor or nostalgia. Yet Kelly’s version of our strangely not-so-recent past is more interested in rushing through the narrative’s events than contemplating their environment. I Am Michael tells the real-life story of Michael Glatze (played by Franco), a gay journalist who renounces his homosexuality—and homosexuality tout court—after a health scare, by presenting the man’s unusual biography with the same generic aesthetics and dismissiveness toward the storyline’s “how” as King Cobra.
For a film whose main character’s most life-changing insight comes in the shape of gay identity being a package to be sold to the blind masses, I Am Michael surely feels like the result of some kind of mass-produced formula itself. And it’s one that involves Franco’s face and misguided sense that any gay role isn’t just a good role but the same role, as well as the complete lack of storytelling or stylistic experimentation—apart from the timid usage of Hi8-looking shots here and there. The film’s lack of boldness is particularly irksome because XY Magazine, the glossy gay teen publication that’s a fundamental part of Glatze’s biography, was precisely rooted in unapologetic panache, erotic boldness, and rebellious imagination.
Whatever emotional resonance that begins to spring from Kelly’s film is promptly quenched by cheesy piano notes every time a character is supposed to be sad or introspective. What seems most significant about Glatze’s life story is ultimately not what lends itself most easily to controversy, but the less visible, deep-seated motivations for his move from intrepid gay activist to gay-bashing Christian, such as his yearning for joining his parents in heaven and his desperate desire to have inherited his father’s “heart condition.”
To explore such issues seriously, though, would probably require eschewing easily worded scandals and immediately readable brands of gayness. It would also require losing Franco, who’s come to betray the poignancy inherent to a great actor’s face. That is, its chameleonic uncatalogability. In his rush to prove his unabashed willingness to play queer roles successively, Franco ends up wearing “gayface,” that all-purpose mask of one-dimensional availability, instead of truly developing characters who happen to be gay, or ex-gay.