If ever a movie merited a defensive disclaimer, the docsploitation lark Interior. Leather Bar. would be that: “This film is not intended as an indictment of James Franco. It is set in one small segment of James Franco, which is not meant to be representative of the whole James Franco.” The multihyphenate’s collaboration with gay porn verité director Travis Mathews, it purports to be a recreation of the 40 minutes that the MPAA allegedly demanded William Friedkin remove from his controversial Cruising in order to avoid an X rating. But instead, the film turns the camera on itself in order to document its own conceptual coup, casting a mix of gay and straight actors who are, to varying degrees, titillated to wrap their bodies around the line between pomo art and gender-studies term paper. Meanwhile, Franco predominately restricts his own participation to that of an outsider, observing the transgressions that the movie insinuates are actually entirely his bidding, much like what Cruising itself coyly suggested about Al Pacino’s potentially AC/DC undercover cop.
For many years, Franco has gone out of his way to tease, bait, and flatter the gay community without overtly condescending, always making like he wanted them to respect him for his gay mind, not his straight lips. But it’s always been nebulous as to whether it was the gay community whose favor he actually wanted to curry, or if he simply saw the opening to fill as the preeminent gay-vague superstar of the Frat Pack era. Franco, as careful and as self-aware as always, flirts with the presumptuousness of his image maintenance when, halfway through the shoot’s most explicit dick-tugging sequences, he pulls aside his straight and visibly grossed-out Pacino stand-in and recites a litany from the book of post-patriarchal sensitive-straight-guy aphorisms. He insists that his motivation for exploring the entertainment medium’s representation of sexuality is a response to the limited, boy-meets-girl options available during his formative years, as though that dearth was the one thing that prevented him from actualizing his full bi-curious potential.
Franco’s arguments are as manifestly condescending to straight guys as they are to gay ones, but he’s self-aware enough to frame them against the original Cruising, a text whose reputation has inevitably morphed with the times. With Mathews’s help, Franco’s persona forms a kind of symmetry: 1980’s dubious homophobia against 2013’s risible homophilia. Cruising was a reactionary flash point that, yes, exercised an acute degree of bad faith that many of the film’s current fans are unwilling to explore simply because of the amyl rush the movie’s lack of political correctness provides. But its view of homosexuality as an exaggeration of masculinity was ahead of its time (or pure science fiction, depending on how much credit you’re willing to cut Friedkin). The duality that allows Franco to, on one hand, oversee a straight-faced (sic) blowjob scene and, on the other, bro down in the semen-all likes of This Is the End can be milked as either a status report on sublimated homosexuality or, less compellingly, a performance-art demonstration of the rings today’s men jump through in order to preserve the sanctity of their homo-social comfort zones. With Alain Guiraudie’s genuinely dangerous thriller Stranger By the Lake still in theaters, is anyone really going to care to read between the lines when Franco shouts, “It’s a great fucking tool”?