Both dull and pretentious, Maladies is the kind of failed experiment that makes it tough to take James Franco seriously. There's reason to appreciate every time he tries to adapt a great, classic novel or takes on a Hart Crane biopic, but let's be honest and admit most of that stuff has been pretty terrible and Franco terrible in them. The amiable stoner persona he was pegged with early on may not have been a true representation of his personality, but this self-involved streak in which he either plays himself or re-examines aspects of his life has worn out its welcome.
And that's basically what Maladies is, a chance for Franco to comment on Hollywood celebrity, homosexuality, and mental illness, all themes he has touched upon previously. It's also a chance for him to re-team with the singularly-named director, Carter; the two having worked on the strange concept film Erased James Franco that nobody saw on purpose. Maladies casts Franco as, you guessed it, an actor named James who has left that life behind to become a writer. The meta insanity continues as James is also a former soap opera star, with footage of Franco's time on General Hospital aired frequently within the film. Set around 1978, since the Jonestown Massacre is referenced at one point, the story has James living in the beach side home of his artist friend Catherine (Catherine Keener), a neurotic and occasional cross-dresser. Also under her roof is James' daffy sister, Patricia (Fallon Goodson), and they are frequently visited by Delmar (David Strathairn), their gay neighbor with a not-too-subtle crush on the former soap star.
It's worth noting that James has no problem breaking the fourth wall, hearing and communicating with the wry narrator guy, often in public. He's also given to fits of anger and mental breakdowns, throwing things at random and, in one remarkably weird instance, stealing shaving cream from a drug store. There's little rhyme or reason to the characters' many foibles, and little explanation for what is being said about the nature of mental illness on the artistic. Right from the outset Maladies tries to establish itself as profoundly deep, with numerous shots of James lost in thought on the beach, staring blankly into the distance. Maybe he's just stoned. Who knows? Who cares? If there's any point to be made it's lost in a sea of meaningless quirk masking as profundity. The story seems to be set around the 1950s or '60s, but there's an overt reference to the Jonestown Massacre which contradicts it. It's probably an intentional anachronism, but honestly it doesn't really matter.
The sad thing is, all of the performances are incredibly strong and show a deep level of commitment from all involved. Best of all is Strathairn's sensitive portrayal of Delmar, one that deserves to be in a better movie people will actually see. To Franco's credit, he doesn't just fall back on playing a character we've seen him do before. When the script isn't calling for a fit of rage, Franco delivers a simple, vulnerable look at a man struggling with a mental disease he doesn't understand. Carter's playful visual approach is encroached upon by needless flourishes, such as beginning each chapter with supposedly profound quotes. Miscellaneous objects are left to idle in frame for long stretches for no apparent reason. Perhaps if we stare at them long enough they, and Maladies, will gain some meaning. Then again, probably not.