James Franco’s The Sound And The Fury: TIFF Review
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Full disclosure: I have a thing for James Franco. He's on my list - usually at the top.
Lainey may call him the "Artist," and think he can be insufferable, but in my mind, he's a phenomenal talent. I respect his creative flexibility, his academic pursuits, acting skills and Seth Rogen obsession. I bought the first edition of his Palo Alto short story collection on paperback, travelled to New York to see him on-stage in Of Mice and Men, will watch him on any talk show, and feel he was robbed of a Best Supporting Actor nomination (and win) for Spring Breakers. In my head, he's the erotic pillow-loving "James Franco" of 30 Rock, just looking to be understood.
Having said that, when it comes to his directorial efforts, even for me, they're hit or miss. As I Lay Dying was well-made, but convoluted. Child of God was a fantastic turn for frequent Franco collaborator Scott Haze, but was too faithful to its Cormac McCarthy source material.
But, The Sound and the Fury is Franco's best effort yet. My renaissance man directs himself in the film, from Matt Rager's adaptation of William Faulkner's multi-narrative novel.
The film is split into three parts, each with a different narrator and focusing on a specific upper class southern family in the 1920s. Franco plays Benjy, an intellectually challenged man who is attached to his family and especially his older sister Caddy, played by Ahna O'Reilly, who is Franco's ex. Though the matriarch, Janet Jones Gretzky, in her second Franco-related role (she starred in 2013's adaptation of Palo Alto, directed by Gia Coppola), takes pride in the rest of her family's accomplishments, she views Benjy as the outcast. Only Caddy took a particular warming to Benjy, but she abandoned him and her family when she was shunned for her unplanned pregnancy. Through different vignettes, we learn how this Compson family lost their fortune and unraveled after Caddy welcomed a baby out of wedlock, who grew up to be feisty 17-year-old Miss Quentin, played by Joey King. The second section profiles sensitive brother Quentin's suicide, after he feels it would be his only way out from his inner turmoil and familial guilt. The final story focuses on the villainous Daniel (Scott Haze) who is an unreliable narrator. He is greedy, steals money from the family that was intended for Miss Quentin, treats the help with disrespect, and shows little empathy for Benjy.
Franco's Benjy is non-verbal, sports buckteeth dentures, frequently groans and rolls around, and is taken advantage of by others, who think it's funny to force-feed him alcohol. It's arguably Franco's most physical performance to date, but Benjy also represents the heart of the story. All he wants is for his family to stay together, in spite of pending financial woes, and loss of face at his, Caddy and Quentin's expense.
Riddled with close ups and angled scenic shots, Franco's directorial style is as varied as his resume. The film is all over the place, and can be jarring. He experiments with voiceover for Benjy, flashbacks for Quentin and Caddy, and dark shading for Daniel's ominous tormenting presence. Though his aesthetic can seem disjointed, interestingly, it's Franco's Benjy who unites each storyline, and pushes the narrative forward. But, simplifying Faulkner for a mass audience is no easy task, even though Franco delivers a valiant effort. He also puts the spotlight back on O'Reilly, who in spite of strong supporting turns in Fruitvale Station and The Help, has yet to truly have her breakout moment. Franco gives her that with Caddy, and if enough eyes are on her, it's clear that she does have an earnest quality reminiscent of a young Laura Linney.
Yet, even with the film's multi-layered arcs and retro feel, Franco manages to attract the Throwback Thursday crew. Working the audience at Saturday's North American premiere of The Sound and the Fury in Toronto, Franco earned the loudest screams and shrieks of the festival (louder than Gyllenhaal, Fey, Redmayne, Witherspoon, Delevingne, Rock, Driver, Sandler, and Washington) from his devoted followers - and he returned the favour, by posing with nearly each and every fan for the selfie of their dreams.
Arriving in his standard Gucci suit and skull cap, it's clear the Franco fascination affects all kinds, and he knows how to command a crowd. In spite of any claims of pretentiousness, he genuinely wants his fans to have their moment with him, instructing them, moving their arms and even directing their own selfies to make sure they get the best shot. He did something similar after Of Mice and Men, when he spent nearly 20 minutes signing autographs for fans. The hype surrounding Franco and his seemingly-infinite occupations or roles is more than palpable, and even though he seems to believe it, and enjoy it, it doesn't make his work any less than what it is: always interesting. (Lainey: even though he creeps on underage girls on social media…)