SXSW Movie Review: Maladies
Remember that time that James Franco took a role on General Hospital, just to see what it was like? Well, this is the movie that inspired that quirky move! Franco plays James, a talented young soap opera actor that leaves the show, or is fired, for what is perceived to be a mental illness. He lives with his equally deranged sister and his eccentric best friend, played by Catherine Keener. The film takes place in the sixties, as best I could tell. It was hard to pinpoint an exact year this might be taking place, so I reached out to the director, Carter, to ask him when it takes place. This is what he replied with:
It’s actually set in 1963 or somewhere thereabouts. However there are references to other time-frames in the film, for instance; when Catherine and Patricia are watching the coverage of the Jim Jones / People’s Temple massacre unfold on television, that occurred in 1978. I enjoyed having the film have these ‘time shifts’ and not be committed to a certain decade, even though the ‘look’ of the film is the early 60′s. Catherine’s life as a closeted cross-dresser needed to be set in that time frame as well for it to work. The homosexual closet in the 50′s, 60′s, 70′s is of interest to me as illustrated via Catherine, and in particular – her encounter with Alan Cumming in the diner scene. David Strathairn’s character as well faces some of the same struggles as Catherine.
All three of these characters are strikingly unconventional and undefinable. James’ sister Patricia (Fallon Goodson) comes in and out of the story and doesn’t really seem to serve a purpose here. She is odd, and appears to have a complex of feeling unloved. Catherine (Catherine Keener) is the one looking after James mostly. Although, it becomes evident in the film that she really shouldn’t be trusted as the sole guardian of James, as she seems to have mental issues of her own; sometimes dressing like a man for the day, mustache and all.
These characters add to the dimension of bizarre this story is aiming for, but it is James who sells the delirium. After quitting, or being fired from his show (it is never clarified) he decides to become a writer. Many times in the story we watch the process he goes through while scribbling words down on loose-leaf paper. Many times, his anxiety gets the better of him and he must pick up the telephone, because he enjoys the sound of the dial tone, or find some shaving cream to squirt out of the can, because he probably enjoys the texture and it helps to calm him.
Now perhaps it’s just me, but I found myself constantly trying to diagnose everyone in the film. Maybe if I could have just figured them out, then I could have understood their motives better. That may not be everyone’s reaction to the film, but I’m a nurse by day and it’s how I process now. Honestly, this film will divide crowds. You are either going to love it, or hate it. The crowd that hates it will not give it a chance to marinate on their mind. Those will be the viewers that have no patience for a film with no real structure, a film that doesn’t follow the traditional rules of filmmaking. The ones who love it, however, may find that they themselves are a little peculiar. It’s really hard to think of another film to compare it to. Maybe Silver Linings Playbook, but only in the sense that the main characters share in common the curse of a mental illness. There is no romance in this film like Silver Linings however. Perhaps to those who love it could say it is the dead-serious version of I Heart Huckabees. All of the characters in that film were over the top delusional, only it was a comedy.
It was about mid-way through the film, the scene was an argument between the three, that I really learned to stop diagnosing, and start enjoying this world. It’s not important what, if any, problem the DSM-IV* claims they have, what’s important is who you have with you in your life. This is Director Carter’s first circulated film. He has one other film under his belt, Erased James Franco, which also starred James Franco. Carter seemed to bring out the true essence of both Franco and Keener. First, their character names were their own, next it seems they were almost living in a way that they would live outside of the film; save for Keener dressing as a man occasionally, of course who am I to judge? It’s been well-documented that Franco does bizarre things. He is a man who reaches to achieve everything. The character of James seemed very similar. At one point, he met a blind woman reading in braille. Next he wanted to finish his book entirely in braille. Franco himself decided to join the cast of a soap opera just to see what it was like. He also started teaching a film class at New York University. The man is the ultimate multi-tasker! While some may watch this film and toss it out with the thought of, “no one really behaves like that”, perhaps they should do a little research, because even just looking at the main character proves that theory wrong.
So, needless to say, I will be catching a second screening of this film. Yes, I myself am, strange and unusual, as Lydia Deetz would say, but this film is so complex in all of its layers that it really deserves a second viewing from you too.
I give Maladies 4 “Injections of Thorazine” out of 5
by Angela Davis