While his ambitions frequently exceed his reach — sometimes by a substantial distance — James Franco gets an undeserved amount of grief for his various auteurist projects. It’s hard to think of another matinee idol so eager to spend his cultural capital on ventures that more reasonable, less imaginative movie stars would consider pure folly, and in an increasingly risk-averse Hollywood, that’s nothing to sneeze at. Franco’s second adaptation of a seemingly unfilmable William Faulkner novel within the last year and a half, “The Sound and the Fury,” is certainly a folly, failing to capture the weird, entrancing, often maddening ambiance of the great writer’s elliptical masterpiece, and its surfeit of half-baked film-student flourishes and needless cameos occasionally give it an amateur-hour feel. But Franco nonetheless shows improvement over 2013’s “As I Lay Dying,” and well, it’s hard to fault him for trying.
Published in 1929, Faulkner’s novel skips, stream-of-consciousness-style, through the calamitous history of the Compson clan, a once-noble Mississippi family gone to seed, with four sections told from four different perspectives, a structure Franco retains here. In the first, the mentally challenged Benjy Compson (Franco) struggles to understand the world around him as he’s marginalized, and finally castrated, by his increasingly unfeeling guardians. In the second, the fragile intellectual Quentin Compson (Jacob Loeb) commits suicide during his freshman year at Harvard. In the last two sections — combined into one by the film, to no great detriment — the cynical Jason Compson (Scott Haze), one of the most loathsome characters in all of literature, battles the family’s longtime servant, Dilsey (Loretta Devine), and his rebellious illegitimate niece, Quentin (Joey King), for dominance over what’s left of the Compsons’ good name.
Casting an outsized shadow over all of this is the lone Compson sister, Caddy (Ahna O’Reilly). O’Reilly has a thankless task here, as Caddy is the sort of character who looms so large precisely due to her absence, glimpsed as she is only through splintered memories. To Benjy she’s a luminescent guardian angel, to Quentin a tragic, sublimated love interest, and to Jason a “fallen woman” whose behavior cost him a career. On the page, her character attains an almost mythic resonance; onscreen, she comes across as a central-casting Southern belle from some lesser Tennessee Williams play.
Unlike Martin Ritt’s long-lamented 1959 adaptation, Franco is generally quite faithful, cutting little from the book in terms of narrative incident. But to adapt a novel like this, one needs to find a proper cinematic correlative for its distinctive narrative structure, and Franco’s attempts to merely mimic it fall short. (Masterpieces of modernist literature, often far less concerned with the story than the telling, repeatedly present this trap for overly faithful adapters, with Sean Walsh’s 2003 “Ulysses” adaptation, “Bloom,” representing another noble victim.) Repeated leitmotifs such as Benjy’s “Caddy smelled like the trees” can be hauntingly poetic in print, but become increasingly silly when repeated again and again in voiceover.
Quentin’s story, which suffers the most cutting — particularly regarding his encounter with a mute Italian girl, a subtly significant scene in the novel which makes almost no sense as depicted here — never really finds its center. The more straightforward final section presents more of a standard Southern Gothic vibe, but Haze plays Jason as an almost cartoonish pantomime villain.
There will be some who chuckle at Franco’s turn as Benjy, and it’s easy to see why: While admirably unself-conscious, his howling, simpering and drooling through prosthetic zombie teeth frequently veer into the grotesque. Of course, Franco is simply being faithful to the world of the novel, where the character’s mental deficiencies were seen not as a medical condition, but as a physical embodiment of the Compson family’s decline. But that doesn’t make it any less distracting to watch.
Relying on handheld cameras and claustrophobic close angles, Franco does attempt some Terrence Malick-style dream imagery to help finesse the jumps from past to present, sometimes successfully. Franco buddies Seth Rogen and Danny McBride have small, ill-advised cameos.