“I like to think that I’m gay in my art and straight in my life,” Gay James Franco told Straight James Franco in a split-personality interview for Four Two Nine magazine last year. The trouble with the famously ambiguous actor’s revelation isn’t how one defines “gay,” but rather, what one makes of his “art” — the latest questionable example of which, a Skinemax-styled true crimer called “King Cobra,” yields his queerest role yet.
Aspiring to do for the brutal slaying of gay-porn producer Bryan Kocis what “Boogie Nights” did for the Wonderland murders, “King Cobra” is all smut and no soul, a tacky, superficially titillating reunion between Franco and “I Am Michael” director Justin Kelly that finds the “Sausage Party” star on the receiving end of a supersized kielbasa. Franco plays one of two hot-rod-obsessed, ex-hustler meatheads who literally killed for the right to shoot a movie with underage “adult” film star Brent Corrigan, whose birth name was (the even pornier-sounding) Sean Paul Lockhart — played here by Garrett Clayton (“Teen Beach Movie”), the latest Disney Channel escapee determined to take a wrecking ball to his image.
In what might have been an amusing throwback to the old-Hollywood days when stars were routinely rechristened and kept under contract, Lockhart was free to boff whomever he pleased on-camera, but couldn’t do so as Brent Corrigan. That nom de porn was shrewdly copyrighted by Cobra Video mogul Kocis, a suburban Svengali — half-sympathetically played by Christian Slater — who enticed “twinks” (trade slang for yummy young men) into having sex on camera from his nondescript Pennsylvania home.
Referred to here as Stephen, Kocis wasn’t quite so shrewd about checking Lockhart’s ID. The lad was just 17 when he made his first video — a key detail in the hands-on producer’s undoing, although 25-going-on-40 Clayton makes an unconvincing minor, boasting an Alec Baldwin-like perma-shadow where his peach fuzz should be. While clearly determined to make audiences squirm, director Kelly shows a counterintuitive kind of respect for Lockhart, opting not to portray him as the wide-eyed naif, the way Mark Wahlberg so winningly embodied Dirk Diggler in “Boogie Nights,” but rather as a misguided artiste.
This kid has ambition: He wants to be a filmmaker, lying to his clueless mom (Alicia Silverstone, appearing in just two short scenes) about his swell new internship. He’s a quick study whose own directorial career “King Cobra” will parody in its cheeky epilogue — though Kelly takes greater amusement in recreating the low-grade production values of early-aughts gay porn, with their pro-forma scripting and stiff acting, as if the exploitation movie that surrounds them is operating on a much higher plane.
As “I Am Michael” demonstrated, the director likes to provoke his audience, this time serving up as much skin and sex as he can manage without the film itself being classified as porn — although for that to be the case, it would have to be arousing. But the only sexy thing about “King Cobra” is its many neon-lit driving scenes, which suggest “Scorpio Rising,” as reimagined by Nicolas Winding Refn. While Stephen fetishizes his sports cars, that’s nothing compared to D-grade rivals the Viper Boyz: business-minded Joe (Franco) and his otherwise-gifted boyfriend/muse Harlow (Keegan Allen), who dreams of making a porno called “The Fast and the Curious.”
When Lockhart finally works up the courage to quit Cobra — which leaves a humiliated Stephen having to explain himself to a weirdly cast Molly Ringwald (as Slater’s onscreen sister) — no one in the “industry” will take him. That is, until the Viper Boyz strike, attempting to impress him over an extravagant sushi dinner so uncomfortable, one wonders whether a smarmy producer might have tried the same thing on Franco.
While Clayton plays it earnest, the movie lapses into outright caricature whenever Franco’s character appears, making it clear that this latest nutcase is just another tongue-in-cheek invention, as far removed from his true self as the Alien he played in “Spring Breakers.” Still, to the extent that Franco’s recent filmography has teased audiences’ obsession with his offscreen leanings — whether it was making out with Michael Shannon in “The Broken Tower” or pretend-outing Eminem in “The Interview” — “King Cobra” goes all the way, cutting from a campy car wash to the film’s most explicit sex scene, performed for the benefit of no camera but Kelly’s. Consider it another sacrifice for his art.