By submitting nearly everything he creates for public approval, regardless of whether it’s substantial enough to hold up to that kind of scrutiny, James Franco does no favors to not-ready-for-prime-time works like The Color of Time. The multihyphenate gathered students he had taught at New York University’s film school to write and direct this fictional imagining of the life of poet C.K. Williams, which, despite stellar performances in the main roles, feels nearly weightless and painfully derivative.
An episodic mood poem, the film follows Williams as he rifles through old memories while preparing for a reading. Various incarnations of the poet (among them Zachary Unger and Jordan March as boys, Henry Hopper as a youth, and Franco as a young adult) appear in the flashbacks, most of which involve Williams’s sensitive and beautiful young mother (Jessica Chastain), his first love (a luminous Danika Yarosh), his wife (Mila Kunis), or a friend (Zach Braff) who died young. Not surprisingly, given the ages of the writer-directors, the most successful scenes are depictions of emotions common to childhood or adolescence, including the exquisite awkwardness of very young lovers who want to touch, but don’t yet know how, and the potent mixture of existential loneliness and freedom you may feel if you’re young and on your own. The three principal actors all do very fine work, with Chastain and Franco exuding a wistful soulfulness that’s nicely balanced by Kunis’s sparkling energy and playful wit.
But sun-drenched montages and cutaway shots of nature and cartwheeling kids keep bringing Terrence Malick to mind, especially since Chastain pretty much reprises her role from The Tree of Life, as her character interacts tenderly with her son, glories in the beauty of nature, or both. This gaggle of directors, however, lacks Malick’s genius for finding profundity in a protective canopy of trees, a lambent ray of sunshine, or a whispered line of dialogue. If The Tree of Life was a contemplation of the universal mysteries and verities of life, The Color of Time is an hour spent scrolling through a stranger’s family album.