You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

The Broken Tower

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.

With: James Franco, Michael Shannon, Dave Franco, Stacey Miller.

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.

The Broken Tower

Production: A RabbitBandini presentation in association with Made-in-Film-Land. Produced by Caroline Aragon, James Franco, Vince Jolivette, Miles Levy. Directed, written, edited by James Franco, based on "The Broken Tower" by Paul Mariani.

Crew: Camera (B&W/color), Christina Voros; music, Neil Benezra; production designer, Kristen Adams; costume designer, Malgosia Turzanska; sound, Benezra; stunt coordinator, Drew Leary; line producers, Monica Hoenig, Nicolas Celis; associate producer, John Morrow; assistant director, Caroline Aragon. Reviewed at Los Angeles Film Festival (Conversations and Panels), June 20, 2011. Running time: 108 MIN.

Cast: With: James Franco, Michael Shannon, Dave Franco, Stacey Miller.

More Scene

  • Laurie Metcalf, John Lithgow'Hillary and Clinton'

    Why John Lithgow Worried About Starring in Broadway's 'Hillary and Clinton'

    When Lucas Hnath first conceived of “Hillary and Clinton” in 2008, he was writing for and about a very different America. Now, a total reimagining of the show has made its way to Broadway with Laurie Metcalf and John Lithgow in the titular roles. At the opening on Thursday night, the cast and creatives talked [...]

  • Patrick Page, Amber Grey, Eva Noblezada,

    'Hadestown' Took 12 Years to Get to Broadway, but It's More Relevant Than Ever

    When “Hadestown” was first staged as a tiny, DIY theater project in Vermont, those involved could never have predicted that it was the start of a 12-year journey to Broadway — or how painfully relevant it would be when it arrived. At Wednesday night’s opening at the Walter Kerr Theatre, the cast and creatives discussed [...]

  • Mick Jagger

    Mick Jagger Makes First Post-Surgery Appearance at Rolling Stones Ballet Premiere

    Rock legend Mick Jagger made his first public appearance post-heart surgery on Thursday night to catch a glimpse of the world premiere of the Rolling Stones ballet “Porte Rouge.” “I hope you are going to enjoy this wonderful new ballet, and, of course, the music,” the frontman declared in a pre-recorded message to the audience [...]

  • Adam Driver appears at the curtain

    Adam Driver on Starring in 'Burn This' for a Second Time

    The Hudson Theatre’s new production of “Burn This” marks its first Broadway revival since it premiered on the Great White Way in 1987, but Adam Driver is no stranger to the work. He starred as Pale in a Juilliard production of the Lanford Wilson drama when he was still a student — and only now, [...]

  • PMC Event Rome

    Film, Fashion, Formula E Mix at Rome E-Prix Bash

    Film, fashion and Formula E auto-racing fused during a dinner and celebration of the Rome E-Prix on Thursday at the Palazzo Dama by the Piazza del Popolo in the heart of the Eternal City.  Guests mingled and sipped cocktails as hors d’oeuvres were passed around in a former home of the Italian nobility with conversation [...]

  • Katy Perry, Diane von Furstenberg, Arianna

    Katy Perry and Anita Hill Honored at the DVF Awards

    Katy Perry was among the honorees at the 10th Annual DVF Awards on Thursday night. The singer was recognized for her advocacy work with both UNICEF and the LGBTQ community. “Music has opened the doors for so many opportunities for me,” she said while accepting the inspiration award. “The ability to meet people and champion [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content