James Franco is many things — an actor, a writer, a painter, a professor, and a poet, to name just a few — but of all of his roles, he is possibly best at being the enigma that is James Franco. Therefore, it’s fitting that in his latest film, Maladies, he plays to his strengths and takes on a role very similar to who he is as a person. In the film, Franco plays a recently retired soap opera actor name James, who has stepped away from the spotlight to pursue writing. He lives with his emotionally distant sister, Patricia (Fallon Goodson) and his good friend Catherine (Catherine Keener), and is attempting to write a great memoir of his life, a feat that is complicated by the fact that he has recently begun hearing voices.
Watching the trailer, it’s easy to become a bit confused about the premise of the film, and the role Franco is playing. Is he playing James Franco, or just another actor who happens to be named James? Is this a period film, or is everyone just hipsters? What’s his memoir about? We figure the best way to understand what’s happening in the trailer for Maladies is to break everything down, question by question.
So, is James Franco just playing himself?
Yes and no. Although he shares many of the same traits, like a desire to leave acting for writing and a long run on a soap opera, James is a fictional character. However, he is somewhat based on Franco, so technically, Franco’s playing an adapted version of himself.
That makes no sense. Is he or isn’t he?
The short answer: not really.
When does this take place?
In the 1960s, which explains why the trailer feels like a period film.
Did James Franco direct this?
No, the film was written and directed by Carter. Just Carter. Like Madonna or McLovin, he only needs one name.
Well, okay. Who is Carter, then?
Carter is a visual artist and a director who has worked with Franco in the past, on the film Erased James Franco. The two are good friends, and plan to collaborate on many more projects in the future.
So, James Franco isn’t playing himself. Is Catherine Keener playing herself?
No, she’s playing a fictional character named Catherine. She is a cross-dressing artist who lives with James, and the two of them have a pact to finish each other’s life work if one of them should die.
Is her character based on anybody?
According to Franco, Catherine is a fictional representation of Carter, and the friendship that the two of them share. He told The Believer, “In Maladies the two characters make a pact that if one of them dies the other will finish the dead person’s work. I would be honored to make such a pact with Carter, because he understands me better than most.” He has also called the director his “double.”
Okay, so it’s a movie about James Franco and Carter’s friendship, but they’re not playing themselves.
Yep. You got it.
So where do the soap operas come in?
James, the character, was an actor on a popular soap opera before he left to dedicate his time to writing.
Like James Franco, then?
Yes. In fact, Franco took his role on General Hospital after Carter encouraged him to. It was part of his preparation for the film.
Is the James from the movie an actor on General Hospital?
They haven’t said what soap opera his character is on. But, probably not.
Is James’ soap opera character named Franco, like the real Franco’s was on General Hospital?
Probably not, but that would be awesome, wouldn’t it?
What’s with the sister?
James and Catherine live with his sister, Patricia, who is described in the plot summary as being “mentally detached.”
Does James have a “malady” as well?
Yes. James has left his job because of a mental illness. The synopses have described him as having schizophrenia, although Carter said that he actually has “an unknown mental illness.”
Does Carter have something specific in mind, even though it’s not revealed to the audience?
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Carter said that he never wanted James to have one specific illness: “I studied The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is the book that they republish every 10 years that lists all of the ailments that a person could have. It’s just for doctors. So I went through all of those and I wanted James’ character to have every ailment in it, which is absurd, I know. That’s what he was suffering from, the unknown to everything at once.”
So, if James has a “malady” and so does Patricia, does Catherine have one too?
No. But she’s gay, which isn’t considered an illness now, but could have been in the 1960s, when the film is set.
Is that where the title comes from?
Yep. See, you’ve got the hang of this.
Whose voice is that in the trailer?
The narrator is voiced by Ken Scott, but the voice functions both as the voice in James’ head and a narrator.
Something is bugging me. I feel like there already was a movie wherein James Franco played himself as a schizophrenic soap opera actor.
You’re right. Maladies will be the second movie of that description. The first was Francophrenia (Or Don’t Kill Me, I Know Where the Baby Is), which James Franco and director Ian Olds put together from footage of the actor on General Hospital. It was weird.
Okay. I think I’ve got it. One more question.
When will Maladies be released?
On March 21.
Cool. One final final question: why wasn’t Franco nominated for an Oscar for Spring Breakers?
We may never know. Perhaps the Academy didn’t appreciate the way he whispers “Spring breaaak” like the rest of us did.