Writing reviews of James Franco’s fiction is like a gateway drug. It tends to suck critics into the harder stuff: wanting to assess James Franco the man, the brazen hyphenate, the actor-writer-student-director-blogger-poet-performance-artist-painter-prankster-Oscar-host who still finds time to feud with the feudiest of online tabloids, Gawker.
Many of us go straight to the how-dare-he verdict, a determination that takes full stock of just how pretentious and ubiquitous and sometimes wrong-headed Franco can be. The guy wasn’t satisfied as a promising movie actor, but instead of just starting a rock band like most of Hollywood’s restless hipster hotties, he turned himself into some kind of performance artist for the masses. The pinnacle: when he played Robert James “Franco” Frank on “General Hospital” and making it a meta-maniacal event. Runner-up: his Sundance installation “Three’s Company: The Drama.’’
Rather than simply disappearing for his college career like, say, Natalie Portman, Franco took a more exhibitionistic route with much noted turns at UCLA, NYU, RISD, and Yale. His literary, academic, beatnik affectations have become his calling card. While maintaining his stoner cred in the Judd Apatow school, he has also written, directed, and starred in an adaptation of William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” and a biopic of poet Hart Crane. And, of course, he has written books, including the story collection “Palo Alto” in 2010 and his first novel, “Actors Anonymous,” out this week. The guy has nerve; there’s no doubt about it.
Today, I don’t feel the need to slam his mission to live a life less ordinary. He’s not the child of James Dean that “Freaks and Geeks” lovers wanted him to be, and that’s OK. I’m impressed with his energy — just check out his IMDB page, which lists a dozen projects on the way — and troll-like sense of humor. He makes fun of himself (kissing himself in a mirror in a short film) and of the gay rumors about him (kissing a guy in his own faked tabloid photos). He has a massive ego, it seems, but he’s not afraid to laugh at it, unlike, say, Tom Cruise. And, if you’ve seen “Spring Breakers,” you know he can still act.
But, still, whether or not you like the Franco Project, “Actors Anonymous” is not very good. It’s really quite a mess, a bunch of fiction snippets, random observations about acting, and gossipy Hollywood teases that he has pulled together under a very shaky premise having something to do with a 12-step program for actors. As the Wizard of Oz — whom Franco played in the movie “Oz the Great and Powerful” — said to the lion, “You, my friend, are a victim of disorganized thinking.” Rather than a novel of interlocking pieces with a narrative thrust, “Actors Anonymous” is just Franco’s literary yard sale.
There are fragments here and there that have the whiff of honest fiction writing about them. A number of chapters chronicle the quiet despair and financial desperation of wannabe actors on the fringes of Hollywood, as they shuffle from working at McDonald’s takeout window to sexual liaisons — both gay and straight, both for free and for money. He sometimes seems to be aiming for a “Day of the Locust”-like group portrait of people coming to Hollywood with dangerous illusions in their eyes.
But the rest of the book — the bulk of it, really — is bombastic, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing. For some reason that doesn’t connect to the substance of the stories, Franco experiments with form. One chapter, for example, is written as a play, while another is simply a series of footnotes for an article about “the Actor.” It’s as if Franco has been reading David Foster Wallace or James Joyce’s “Ulysses” without quite understanding the point of their structural contortions. I challenge you to care about anyone or anything in any of those portions of the book.
The chapters that are simply little bits of philosophy about Hollywood are similarly hollow, such as “Actors are treated like royalty on-set. The extras are treated like peasants.” He also throws out a lot of names in these musings, from Marlon Brando to River Phoenix and — my favorite — the poet Frank Bidart, about whom he writes: “Read Frank’s poem, ‘Advice to the Players.’ It talks about all of this, about the human need to create.” At least Franco has good taste.
But it gets harder to stick with “Actors Anonymous” the further in you get, no matter how many names Franco throws at us, no matter how many allusions he makes to his own career. Like many vanity projects, the book is destined to appeal to few beyond its creator.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.