Actor pursues knowledge like most actors pursue fame

Movie stars tend to exhibit a wide range of hangups and addictions, but James Franco’s idiosyncrasies are rather unique: He’s an academic junkie.

While most actors play golf between gigs, Franco keeps going back to school. He’s studied filmmaking at NYU, creative writing at Columbia and is about to enter Yale. Spending time with him recently, I began to understand his motivation: He really seems to like knowledge. And, at this rate, he’ll end up with more degrees than the Academy has awards.

By the way, Franco, 32, also keeps busy in movies. He co-stars with Julia Roberts in “Eat Pray Love,” has just worked with Danny Boyle on a film titled “127 Hours” and is about to start a $160 million prequel at Fox to “Planet of the Apes.”

In addition, he directs short films, three of which have won kudos on the festival circuit, most recently at the Palm Springs ShortFest. And he’s also done a 20-episode stint on “General Hospital” — but that gig goes back to academics, not showbiz. Franco orchestrated his appearance as “Franco” with the Museum of Modern Art as an exercise in performance art.

Franco even wrote a lengthy and thoughtful piece for the Wall Street Journal’s arts section to propound the thesis that “performance art can seem pretentious, but it can also be quite mischievous and playful.” As examples, he pointed to Marcel Duchamp’s performance piece “Fountain” (it focused on a urinal) and Paul McCarthy’s “Hot Dog” and “Santa Chocolate Shop” (the elves seemed hooked on chocolate, ketchup and mayonnaise).

The range of Franco’s film work, from “Pineapple Express” to “Milk,” exhibits both his playfulness and his talent, but he acknowledges that, if he were a director, “I wouldn’t want to work with me.” The reason: Like many stars, he wants control. But the difference is that, through his shorts and his studies, he’s working hard to prepare himself. And he seems to be doing a thorough job.

The invisible critics

Popcorn movies are having their problems this summer.

As evidence, look no further than the banners on the quote ads. Raves from a few esteemed critics used to carry clout with filmgoers, but these days the studios grab a quote then cite the critic in such small type that no one can read it.

The banners proclaim that “The Last Airbender” is a “powerful, action-packed movie,” but you’ll need a magnifying glass to discover that the source is someone named James Oster on Similarly, the uniquely clunky “Grown Ups” is “the perfect summer movie” according to (in tiny type) those dependable, if mysterious, critics from Fox TV, Shawn Edwards and Bill Zwecker.

I asked a studio marketing chief about all this and he acknowledged, “I don’t give a damn who supplies the quote. I just want the banner.”

On occasion, to be sure, a “name” critic comes through with the ideal quote fitting a studio’s marketing strategy. A banner from Peter Travers of Rolling Stone shouts “You’ll laugh till it hurts” about “Cyrus,” a gentle, torpid film that gave me a few smiles but absolutely no laugh-out-louds.

And Ken Turan of the Los Angeles Times graciously cited “Knight and Day” as “the most entertaining made-for-adults movie,” which delighted Fox since adults, not the kids, are rallying to the movie.

In view of all of this, a salute should go to Lionsgate for its strategy on the Ashton Kutcher film “The Killers.” The company refused to show the movie to critics and didn’t run any mysterious quotes from invisible sources. The movie still generated well over $40 million in the U.S. without anyone proclaiming it to be the “perfect summer movie.”

It wasn’t.

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