James Franco’s ongoing deconstruction of his celebrity persona has offered results of varying quality in many artistic disciplines. His whole exhaustive career registers as an elaborate piece of performance art, and his surprising, and surprisingly bizarre, stint on General Hospital loosely informs the narrative of Maladies, in which the multihyphenate plays a neurotic ex-soap actor named James (natch) who moves, with his sister, Patricia (Fallon Goodson), into the home of his bohemian painter friend, Catherine (Catherine Keener), as he pursues his passion for writing. In the hands of artist-cum-director Carter, né John Carter, the smug Maladies borders on parody as it portrays its hero as an outsider genius bound for martyrdom, which makes the film feel more like it was made by Franco’s vain, art-fetishizing character from This Is the End.
Maladies suffers from a lack of cohesiveness due to the untidy nature with which it handles a torrent of existentialist inquiries, never feeling tethered to one central conceit; as a result, the film meanders without evincing any real sense of purpose. Endless pontificating between characters defines the majority of the scenes, with an omniscient, and highly meta, narrator often chiming in. The philosophizing is ultimately a shallow reach for profundity, as Carter dances around his ideas without dramatically or thematically fulfilling them. The director seems more inclined to pile on quirk through odd character mannerisms—like the way James hides from important situations by finding solace in a telephone’s dial tone.
The filmmaker occasionally spotlights Franco as a droll, offbeat comedian with a flair for physical comedy, and these moments give Maladies some superficial pleasures that feel refreshing amid all of the faux-headiness. But aside from these slight dips into silliness, Carter is so keen on capturing Franco as a master artist that the whole thing comes off as unbridled flattery. (This is even inadvertently embodied in David Strathairn’s character, Delmar, the sheltered next-door neighbor enamored with James’s character on the fictional soap he starred in, the show itself comprised of actual clips from Franco’s General Hospital days.) James and Catherine make a pact that they’ll finish each other’s writings and paintings if one of them were to die, and this agreement projects Carter’s dubious final implication: The importance of James’s (and therefore possibly Franco’s) artistic endeavors and ambitions cannot be understated, and as such one must pick up the mantle and finish his work even after he’s gone.