Following his performance in “Howl” with what may only be chapter two of “James Franco’s Lives of the Poets,” the polymath actor-academic tackles the life of Hart Crane, the influential American writer whose life was so full of drama one wonders why more of it didn’t make it to the screen, even accidentally. Though clearly besotted with Crane’s poetry (which includes “The Bridge,” an epic of early 20th-century modernist romanticism), the writer-director-star never achieves full immersion in the man’s life or work; the sense is of people playing a very cerebral game of dress-up. Franco-philes will flock; others will flee.
Structured in chapters referred to as “Voyages” (the title of a series of erotic poems written by Crane), “The Broken Tower” is based on the book of the same title by celebrated literary critic Paul Mariani and charts Crane’s life from his stifling middle-class upbringing near Cleveland to his years in New York, his travels to Paris and Mexico, and his struggles with his homosexuality, writing and artistic inertia.
Lensed primarily in black-and-white, the film is most effective when Franco (who played another major gay poet, Allen Ginsberg, in “Howl”) keeps the camera moving: One of the better scenes is a simple tracking shot of Crane’s face in extreme closeup as the poet arrives back in New York, fully expecting to find the happiness that proves so elusive to him. But disappointment and artistic frustration are just around the corner, and knowing this makes the scene all the more poignant.
But Franco’s attempts to cinematically realize the essence of Crane’s poetry are simply misguided and often quite tedious. There’s very little sense of a time recaptured in “The Broken Tower,” of being transported to, say, the 1920s; one could give Franco the benefit of the doubt and say he’s underscoring the timelessness of Crane’s poetry by letting visual links to the 21st-century leach into his imagery, but the more likely cause would seem budgetary. Could the Gotham subway stations have really looked 100 years old 90 years ago? Did boats have chrome guiderails? Christina Voros’ often-elegant shooting conscientiously avoids more flagrant anachronisms by shooting above street level; this is easier to do in the more antique-appointed Paris than in ever-evolving New York.
The other disjointed factor is Franco’s voice. For all we know, the actor may well be doing a dead-on Crane impersonation, but the grandeur and gravity Franco clearly intends to bestow on the work — in an extended reading of “The Marriage of Faustus and Helen,” for instance, and later on, with “The Bridge” itself — is scuttled by Franco’s very 21st-century vocal inflections. It sounds like James Dean doing Shakespeare.
Franco is borrowing from pretty solid sources, among them John Cassavetes and the surrealists. But the drama is lacking apart from the scenes that directly involve action — and not just the sexual variety, Crane’s couplings with one of his sailor boyfriends are presented quite explicitly. Elsewhere, Crane’s visit to a boxing match, in which his exhilaration as a witness matches the fury of the ring, is a scene that really clicks; too bad there aren’t more of them.
Production values are adequate, although a sequence in which Crane visits Notre Dame Cathedral — the sole instance of color in the film, done in what looks like hand-tinted pastels — is delirious.