At first, Maladies plays as a strange little film that reminds one of other great films. Like so many other movies about art and artists, there is plenty for the creative audience to identify with, as much of it consists of poking fun at the paradoxical nature of the writer (where arrogance and insecurity coexist, often simultaneously) and the madness of the artist. But there’s also a seriously dark twinge to the narrative. Director Carter (who worked with Franco on his first project, Erased James Franco) plays around with concepts of celebrity, creativity, and even seems to throw in a little Gestalt theory into his second feature film. Maladies is, as a result, smarter than it is entertaining. But ultimately it adds to the eternally ongoing cinematic conversation about artists and the quirks (healthy and otherwise) that define them.
Set in 1960s New York, Franco plays a former soap opera star (named James) who has a breakdown, quits the biz, and decides to pursue true art. His character suffers from that very specific and adorable Franco-nian weirdness that has earned the actor all of those incredibly mean (but totally accurate) jabs on his Comedy Central Roast. In one of the opening scenes he explains to Catherine Keener’s character (Catherine) that he has a newfound love for the word “whilst,” which he’s recently discovered in his readings. Naturally, he cannot pronounce the word correctly, and the rest of the film consists of much of the same—he wants desperately to be this learned artist, but he’s not quite as deep as he’d like to be.
James is surrounded by equally strange characters (also creative types), including his sister (Fallon Goodson) and their friend (Keener). Like a Wes Anderson film, every character—even those we only meet momentarily (Alan Cumming and Mary Beth Piel of The Good Wife both have cameos) —has his or her own bizarre moment in the story. Keener’s character is a painter, which helps inspire a very Synecdoche, NY-esque feeling (also partly due to James’ obsession with dying, and with the idea of creating something eternal). She is at odds with James, and their petty conflicts make up much of the film’s plot, although a pact they make together as artists also works to build up some of the tension.
Carter’s story has all sort of small, but fascinating moments throughout (like the fact that Catherine is a cross-dresser), but there isn’t always an attempt to flush these things out. And watching James’ half-frightening, half-comical descent into an artist’s madness offers an interesting take on the question of the creative mind. (There’s a great scene towards the end when Franco is really losing it, and finally screams out, “I’m just trying to get some work done!”—very relatable moment for many an artist.) Still, Maladies gives off an even darker vibe than the typical films about writers or budding artists. You could say that Carter’s approach is like a Charlie Kaufman’s but without the whimsy, with far less humor. And even though the characters stand apart from each other as individuals, it is unfortunate that none of them are compelling enough to really leave a lasting impression.
Even with it’s weak points, there is still enough going on in Maladies to make the film an interesting, weird sort of adventure. The director’s background as a visual artist and as a creative experimenter shines through in a way that makes the film unique, even as it also contributes to some of its weaknesses. It is, at times, a bit too abstract for its own good, but ultimately Carter’s sophomore effort succeeds in setting his work apart and sparking the viewer’s curiosity about his other work and future film projects.
Shannon M. Houston is a New York-based freelance writer, regular contributor to Paste, and occasional contributor to the human race via little squishy babies. You can follow her on Twitter.
Starring: James Franco, Catherine Keener, Fallon Goodson
Release Date: Mar. 21, 2014