Maladies furthers my conviction that filmmakers who go by one name are to be given little benefit of the doubt. I’ll hazard a guess that “Carter,” who wrote and directed this movie, is a friend of James Franco, given that his only previous IMDb credit is for a collaboration with Franco. I’m also guessing that this connection is how actors like Catherine Keener, David Strathairn, and Alan Cumming got brought onboard this project. I can’t imagine what would have seemed attractive about this almost archetypically student film-like concept.
In an entertainingly Franco move, Franco plays James, who once acted in a popular soap opera but now devotes his time to writing. In one scene, he resolves to learn Braille so that he can write his book in it. Also, a voice in James’s head (Ken Scott, who does a very good job of sounding like the Frontline guy) both narrates his life and talks to him. It’s very discombobulating. James’s mental illness is why he left acting, and now he lives with his equally imbalanced sister (Fallon Goodson) and his harried best friend Catherine (Keener).
For nearly a hundred minutes, James bounces between awkward social interactions, befriending Delmar (Strathairn), one of the fans of his soap opera days, along the way. In the grand fashion of indie film, things are not okay until they quite suddenly are at the end. This is an extended exercise in tossing ideas about like those sticky gel hands, watching them glom onto windows and then slowly unpeel. There’s no real point to it other than the not-at-all revelatory concept that art has worth. “Everything needs to be made by somebody!” is the way the film puts it, which is actually rather cute.
The film’s tone approximates that of the similarly probing (though much, much better) I Heart Huckabees. Think of it as Huckabees‘s eager but much less capable younger brother. Franco is doing that thing where he appears to be playing himself, only having suffered a recent head wound, and that’s not just because his character shares his name and some biographical details. He stares or glares at things and yells at people with a hostility that reads more like hesitant disgruntlement. For all I know, it’s some aspect of performance art that he’s indulging that the audience is not privy to. He’s still more bearable than Goodson, whose “crazy” acting is cringeworthy, and not in a good way. Strathairn and Keener mostly react to the shenanigans, though they still can’t summon much enthusiasm for the proceedings.
The only thing more notable than Maladies‘s pretentiousness is how harmless that pretentiousness feels. Maybe it’s because that voice in James’s head is so pleasant, making the well-tread observations about life, sanity and art go down smoothly. Maybe it’s the knowledge that the movie is coming out so under-the-radar that expending any special ire at it would be a wasteful effort, like burning an ugly doll that’s already been thrown in the trash. At any rate, I didn’t hate Maladies nearly as much as I thought I would, or perhaps as much as it deserves.