Every generation seems to have its actors that act as a sort of soft dividing line between generations. People like Brando or James Dean—actors who most closely resembled, often in appearance as well as effect, the rock stars that continually turn new generations of young adults toward new horizons that their parents cannot quite make out. Sometimes—if they’re really doing something out of the ordinary—they’re just odd enough that nobody, young or old, can quite pin them down.
To me, James Franco is one of those actors. Now, when I bring this up in conversation, people often assume I’m joking. Did I not see the Oscar telecast that he co-hosted with Anne Hathaway? Yes, I saw it, and, yes, it was something awful. And it’s true that he was friend turned foe to Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man, but on either side of those blockbuster turns are a clutch of smaller but more interesting roles: in early television roles on the acclaimed Freaks & Geeks and in an award-winning turn as James Dean in a TV biopic, and later in films like Milk, in which he played the conflicted lover of gay rights icon Harvey Milk.
But the roles that make him such an interesting personality—not just an actor—are the oddball ones: a stint on daytime soap General Hospital where he played a serial-killer/artist named Franco; or the self-referential cameos on shows like 30 Rock. And then there are pushing-the-envelope projects like Interior. Leather Bar.—an hour-long exploratory film that uses deleted scenes from the 1980 film Cruising as a jumping off point for a discussion about sex, filmmaking, and taboos.
This week Franco returns in another self-referential role in This Is The End, a film that reunites him with some of his co-stars from the under-appreciated Pineapple Express, including Seth Rogen (who also co-directed this new film) and Danny McBride. In it, they play outsized versions of themselves—their characters carry the same names as the actors, but the rest is exaggeration—at a party that Franco is throwing. But while they carry on, an apocalypse—maybe the apocalypse—is raging outside, and before long the partygoers find themselves trapped, suffering from cabin fever, and facing the who-do-we-eat-first problem familiar to apocalypses everywhere.
The strength of the cast is a testament to the crew’s standing in Hollywood, and helps reinforce the feeling of camaraderie that arises naturally between Franco and Rogen. On board for the end of the world are Emma Watson, Michael Cera, and more, including The Office’s Mindy Kaling and Aziz Ansari. Not everyone will like it, to be sure, but in a time when so few stars are willing to risk exploring the absurdity of their public lives, Franco continues to offer an alternative.
Also this week: On Wednesday, June 12 at 7 p.m., Hadley’s Cinemark Theater is hosting a one-night-only screening of the documentary Spirit of the Marathon, a follow-up to the 2008 film of the same name. While the Boston tragedy is still weighing on us, director Jon Dunham’s story turns instead to tell the tale of the Rome Marathon through the personal histories of seven runners from around the world. They run for a remarkable range of reasons: one gunning for a spot on the Ukraine Olympic team; another running to raise awareness of pancreatic cancer; a third, a Rwandan Olympian hoping to effect change for women around the world. As each makes their journey from home to the starting line in Italy, the documentary turns to interviews with marathon legends Stefano Baldini and Paula Radcliffe, among others, to help set the stage for one of the world’s most scenic street races.•
Jack Brown can be reached at email@example.com.