69 min., dir. by Ian Olds and James Franco
Twenty years ago, my father made a video for my mother’s 40th birthday that he unveiled at her surprise party. The homemade movie contained a lengthy dream sequence in where my father overdubbed this ridiculous, fake back story of my mother’s life that he narrated while providing silly voices in place of the few characters within. His magnum opus was never shown at a film festival, but Francophrenia (or Don’t Kill Me, I Know Where the Baby Is) is pretty much a larger-scale version of the same thing. While Francophrenia is entertaining at times in its self-proclaimed examination of stardom and ego, I’d much rather watch the 40th birthday video.
You may have forgotten by now (or never knew), but James Franco booked a stint on the long-running soap opera General Hospital. No, this was not when he was young and starting off — this was when he was nominated for an Academy Award. He played a twisted artist/killer named Franco, if you can believe it. As the show was shooting the grand finale of the character’s story arc (apparently it never was completed), Franco (the real one) had a camera crew following him around. Once the entire ordeal was over, James asked documentary film maker Ian Olds to edit down the massive amount of footage into a behind-the- scenes documentary. Instead, with Franco’s approval, he turned the whole thing into an experimental “thriller” that is meant to poke and prod at the idea of celebrity — from the viewpoint of both the star and the fans.
At only 70 minutes, Francophrenia should be a breeze to sit through. On the contrary, the first 20 minutes of the film are split between Franco greeting fans and getting lost on his way to the set. Finally, after a few takes of him delivering a crucial line, the true madness behind this experiment gets under way. Amidst shots of Franco sporting devious looks and shady profiles, an odd voiceover comes through: “Stay cool, stay cool. What am I doing here? Who is that, they’re after me. Stay cool.” The whispering voice of Ian Olds opens a doorway into the head of James Franco. It’s cute and funny — suddenly things are looking up. That is until it just keeps repeating the same junk, over and over. Maybe Olds was hoping that I, as a viewer, would start my own inner dialogue: “What am I doing here? Why am I watching this nonsense? Do the guy behind me just fart? When will this end?” If that was the intention, he succeeded.
As another Tribeca 2012 entry, Eddie: The Sleepwalking Cannibal illustrates, it’s possible to take what sounds like a gimmick and make it work at a feature length. Francophrenia, on the other hand, does the exact opposite, leaving me wishing it was a short whimsical experience — like a well-made 40th birthday video.