by Lewis Church
James Franco, the recent defender of frat pack free speech in The Interview has taken a break from international relations to bring you this, his first novel. He’s in your films, on your television, and now on your bookshelf. It is largely everything that you might expect.
Franco is the actor now in danger of being out-stranged by the paper-bagged Shia LaBeouf. In the last five years he’s become the kind of star that gets given ‘character’ roles in mega-budget blockbusters, leads in indies, and a never-ending series of cameos whenever someone who can do ‘arty’ is required. He is also afforded enough directorial rope to hang himself with, as very few of us saw in the woefully received As I Lay Dying (2013). When he’s good he’s tolerable (see Spring Breakers), and when he’s bad he makes migraine strength pigswill like Your Highness. He does not lack for confidence however, declaring himself a poet, a performance and visual artist and a teacher. This whingey hubris is perhaps best exemplified by the optioning of his own book of short stories Palo Alto, which he then proceeded to make into a film with Gia Coppola, in which he starred.
His Actors Anonymous is structured around an imagined twelve-step program for actors, a clumsy metaphor that reaches a painful level of irritation by the end of Step 3, when the members of said group agree to turn their will and ‘performances’ over to a ‘Great Director’. These steps frame the disjointed narrative sections, stories within which superficial readings of the careers and psychological profiles of Marlon Brando, River Phoenix and Jack Nicholson abound. Actors are the subject, and acting itself is no doubt what is supposed to be called into question by Franco’s continual appearance throughout the text. The author is very present, and he crops up as both himself and as a kind of faux-Franco everyman that is a little embarrassing. Memorable moments in the narrative include a worryingly sympathetic depiction of a date-rape and a series of tired reinforcements of addiction-wisdom clichés. There are also several poorly drawn racial stereotypes, including but not limited to a mentally deficient Mexican McDonalds worker who mimes his way through a blowjob transaction with the narrator in broken English. These blinkered representations of the poor and the disadvantaged must be intended as a novelistic cross section of the entertainment industry, but only highlight the distorted view Franco has from the top of his industry pyramid.
The book, like most other aspects of Franco’s career, is frustrating not for being universally bad but painfully mediocre, with the occasional unpleasant slide into objectionably misguided. Actors Anonymous is aiming for an urban snapshot reminiscent of the great L.A. novels of Nathanael West or John Fante, but it spectacularly falls over itself as a result of the name on the cover. Whatever Bukowski pretensions he harbours, Franco is only weird, only challenging, only ‘arty’ within the bounds of acceptability and he does it all from a position of such ludicrous privilege that it is actively unpleasant in most cases. I have never believed that art must come from poverty, but how could Franco ever meaningfully critique an industry that he participates in as an art-world for hire sexually ambiguous beatnik pastiche? These are the most entitled Hollywood down-and-out stories ever, perfectly skimming the scum lake of problems that actually do float below the entertainment industry without ever threatening to take a position or engage. It’s the cleanest grit you’ll ever read, and isn’t even bad enough to warrant a morbid hate skim.