James, the oh-so-meta character played by James Franco in “Maladies,” has a liberal view on the artistic process: “Everything needs to get made,” he says, “and someone has to make it.” It’s a philosophy reflected in Franco’s own increasingly eccentric CV, but it’s sorely tested by this precious, pointless exercise in designer neurosis from mononymic artist-turned-filmmaker Carter, in which a household of variously dysfunctional creative types squabble and bond over matters of art, psychology and the advantageous properties of pencils. Name cast is the only draw for distribs in an indulgence with no clear audience beyond those who made it.
New York-based multidisciplinarian Carter’s 2008 debut feature, “Erased James Franco,” was an experimental work featuring the star re-enacting every screen performance he had given to that point, and others besides. The pair’s follow-up effort — ostensibly set in 1963, though Carter throws in a number of deliberately anachronistic cultural references and musical cues — has moderately more mainstream narrative ambitions than that gallery piece, though it also operates as a self-reflexive valentine to Franco himself.
“James” is a retired soap star (an apparent nod to Franco’s on-off stint on daytime institution “General Hospital”) now pursuing a writing career that seems stuck in the planning stages. Hampered by an obvious but unspecified mental illness, he has retreated to a quiet coastal town with his equally damaged sister, Patricia (Fallon Goodson), and his friend Catherine (Catherine Keener), an emotionally brittle painter whose relationship with James borders on the maternal. Sometime cross-dressing Catherine is the sanest of the trio, but we’re talking slim degrees here; this oddball family of sorts is regarded with not-unreasonable skepticism by the conservative townsfolk, with fey next-door neighbor Delmar (David Strathairn), a fawning fan of James’ TV work, their only outside ally.
The tone for the proceedings is set immediately by Ken Scott’s oppressively arch narration, which alternates between second-person interrogation of James himself (“Where are your arms, James?”) and third-person cod-philosophy (“At point A you are one person, at point B you are another person, at point C you are yet again transformed”) that echoes the characters’ own circular musings. The airlessness may not be entirely unintentional: Much of the film, with its offscreen interjections and indeterminate milieu, seems to take place in James’ own addled headspace. Even with this level of inner access, however, it’s hard for the audience to invest in a protagonist this solipsistic.
His friendship with Catherine, culminating in a pact whereby they pledge to complete each other’s artistic endeavors if one dies, is the closest thing here to an emotional hook, though Carter, who seems to define his characters principally by their affectations, hasn’t given a game Keener much to work with beyond an occasional drawn-on mustache. A noisy diner scene — complete with the unwelcome intervention of an Alan Cumming cameo — wherein the three principals vent their frustrations at each other, soundtracked by a crying infant in the background, represents everything that is trying about the director’s unruly approach.
At least Franco has never looked better, skulking around the windswept beachfront in costume designer Jessica Glenn’s chic appropriations of vintage American workwear. His styling and demeanor appear to emulate, not for the first time in the actor’s career, James Dean; disengaged viewers may find themselves wondering how many other Jameses are concentrically worked into this performance. Visually, the pic is disappointingly inert coming from an artist of Carter’s stature: Doug Chamberlain’s rough-and-ready lensing appears to pursue an Instagram aesthetic, though that doesn’t excuse some questionable color grading.