By BETSY SHARKEY and Los Angeles Times Film Critic
Mar 15, 2014 | 2:00 PM
I fear for the future of James Franco's acting career.
And when I say acting, I'm referring to Franco's portrayal of other characters, not the growing number of meta performances the actor is amassing.
It's not that Franco is bad at playing Franco. If anything, the problem is how good his self-referential work has become in the years since his 2011 Oscar nomination for playing someone else in "127 Hours." That performance as a stranded solo hiker, the fear rising, the bravado breaking down, put him on the hot list of the young and the talented.
Franco's most recent meta moment is a quirky turn in "Veronica Mars," the big-screen version of the much-mourned TV series, which lands in theaters March 14. With star Kristen Bell reprising her role, a grown-up version of her popular teenage TV private eye, the movie takes the Hollywood game "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" and Francofies it.
Only two degrees separate Franco from his Hollywood brethren in "Mars," which seems a fair reading of how exponentially his meta-existence has grown. Very funny, but...
Last year's comic riff about the actor's Franco-essence — Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg's "This Is the End," not the Gucci cologne Franco fronts — was one of the unadulterated pleasures of the Hollywood apocalyptic parody. The very specific roasting of his public persona worked because it reflected how the world views Franco — a sometimes maddening mash-up of renaissance man and extreme narcissist. Also very funny, but...
The actor has few recent non-Francofied roles worth noting.
He was excellent as Alien, a drug-running gangster-rapper in 2012's indie hit "Spring Breakers." But much of his recent film work is not just obscure and experimental but also at times nearly unintelligible. And nonstop. "Tar," "Maladies," "The Letter," "Lovelace," "Third Person" among them. Some you may have heard of, others have yet to get beyond the festival circuit.
Even last year's big mainstream movie "Oz the Great and Powerful," in which he played the wizard, wasn't so great.
It is possible to see a method in the madness. The films are often intriguing ideas that seem born of a restless and complicated mind. "Interior. Leather Bar.," for instance. Franco's homage to William Friedkin's controversial 1980 film, "Cruising," premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2013. It had a limited run in theaters this January and is due on DVD in April. Although the film as a whole doesn't work, there are flashes of brilliance in his performance.
Whether "Interior" will ultimately be considered a misunderstood artistic triumph or a self-indulgent interlude remains to be seen. But the provocative — sometimes intellectually, sometimes sexually, always artistically — seems to be the driving force for Franco's career decisions.
The result at the moment is a mixed bag. When he infamously auctioned "invisible art," one piece called "Fresh Air" brought $10,000. I blame the buyer. A stint on the daytime soap "General Hospital" is passed off as performance art, but I wonder.
There is "Palo Alto," Franco's short-story collection. It was the basis for a marginal 2013 film in which he starred, and yet his writing in the book is impressive. Also, the PhD work he's doing at Yale seems serious.
Next week, Franco hits Broadway in a preview of a production of John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men," which begins its run in April. He, Chris O'Dowd and Leighton Meester star in the play directed by Anna D. Shapiro, who won a Tony in 2008 for "August: Osage County."
I'm hopeful, given the pedigree of the play and its director, but the idea of Franco onstage is slightly frightening for many of us who carry 2011 Oscar memories. That year, the Oscar nominee and another rising talent, Anne Hathaway, were tapped to host the show to court younger viewers. Hathaway tried to vamp her way through difficult moments and deadly silences as Franco mostly stood there with the dazed look of, to put it charitably, Bambi in the headlights. If he was trying a meta commentary on the vacuousness of awards shows, it didn't work.
Meanwhile, Franco is not sitting idle on-screen; at least 13 film projects are due this year or next. But will the quality match the quantity?
Though quite a few continue the experimental indie approach, there are two promising animation projects. One is based on the literary favorite "The Little Prince." The other, "Sausage Party," also stars Jonah Hill and Kristen Wiig and seems destined for the sort of line crossing that could be brilliant.
There is a clearer sense of Franco in flux in looking at the films he's directed, and there are a few of those in the coming projects. Because he stars in these films and often writes them, what you usually see on-screen is an allegiance to acting first. And when the acting wins every argument — over script tightening, scene editing, location and set choices, camera angles — the film suffers.
Frankly, Franco is better when he is in better hands. I'm looking forward to his reteaming with the smartly twisted minds of Goldberg and Rogen in "The Interview." And I'm especially curious to see how he fares with Werner Herzog in "Queen of the Desert" and Wim Wenders in "Everything Will Be Fine." These are directors of the caliber who might, like Danny Boyle did with "127 Hours," up Franco's game.
Joaquin Phoenix stands as the model for how to survive a meta-meltdown marvelously. The actor followed his Oscar-nominated 2005 turn in "Walk the Line" with "early retirement," "rapping," a disastrous appearance on "Late Show With David Letterman" and "I'm Still Here," which documented that bizarre phase bizarrely. His return greatly enriched the realer world with two extraordinary performances, in "The Master," for which he was nominated for an Oscar, and "Her."
It's not too late for Franco either. I hope the metamorphosis is already underway.