Love him or hate him, James Franco is a conversation starter. The man of many activities, if not talents, is cherished by some while loathed by others. I can’t help but feel our judgments are based on which of his works comes predominantly to mind. It’s your basic Spider-Man vs. the Oscars, or in my case Pineapple Express vs. Your Highness.
On Sunday night, Franco was on hand to tout his newest piece, the sure-to-be controversial Spring Breakers. It’s a fitting combination of all things Franco. On the one hand, it’s a studio produced party flick about hard-drinking college co-eds getting wasted on the beaches of Florida. On the other, it’s a vehement crucifixion of America’s indulgent support of a youth culture that will stop at nothing to have a good time.
In real life, this might include things like flunking out of school, building up massive debt, and generally ignoring day-to-day responsibilities. In Spring Breakers, it’s a rather rapid progression from wanting money to robbing diners, beach bums, and Florida gangsters, and then it escalates even further.
None of the violence will come as a surprise to anyone familiar with director Harmony Korine’s past work, namely his first writing credit, Kids. The Palme d’Or nominee from 1995 will never be forgotten by the few who’ve seen it, and its reputation as an extremely unsettling picture is well known to anyone who’s heard of it.
However, not too many people have heard of it. The name Harmony Korine and his work isn’t known by many filmgoers, including myself prior to Sunday’s premiere of Spring Breakers. Kids had to be sought out, while his latest will be released in an estimated 550 theaters on March 22.
I don’t think people are ready. Even the film-savvy audience at SXSW seemed conflicted based on the scattered, random laughter and ridiculous post-screening questions for Korine, Franco, Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson, and Rachel Korine. Both questions were directed towards Franco, and the first wanted to know what his “weapon of choice” was while the second wondered what it was like to have a grill.
Franco’s character is the most compelling of an otherwise cookie-cutter lot. After seeing the many alarming images of him in character, I was surprised to find Alien, a dreadlocks-laiden, shades-wearin’, rap-spittin’ drugs and arm dealer – the only morally redemptive character of Spring Breakers.
The girls are mainly soulless clones. Faith (Selena Gomez) is the only one given a background, and it’s such an unimportant one, it need not have been included. They’re there to represent the girls in the “Girls Gone Wild” videos. Alien, though, is an anomaly (hence the name, I imagine). Not having been to a spring break remotely like what’s depicted here, I can’t say for sure a white rapper/gangster would feel out of place. He doesn’t in the movie, but he’s also not the stereotypical representation of the beach dudes who thrive in that social scene.
Alien is all talk. He tells stories of growing up in a black neighborhood and building respect, but he doesn’t have the blank stare of the truly hard man who trained him. He gets nervous around his many guns if they’re not handled properly. He’s hesitant to use what he repeatedly refers to as “his shit” in the ways his girlfriends expect. He’s weak, and early on we know these girls are not.
This isn’t a flaw in the film, nor in the character. It’s refreshing to find any kind of depth packed away in this vile world. In the film’s second best scene (behind a Britney Spears moment I won’t ruin), Alien jumps up and down on his bed with two machine guns, showing off for the two ladies swooning over him already. Within minutes, though, he’s on the verge of tears before swinging the situation back to party-mode in an admittedly crude but cleverly calculated moment of clarity. Franco will certainly draw praise for his outlandish appearance and attitude, but it’s these brief flashes of moral confusion that make him shockingly endearing.
The film, however, fails to follow his lead. While it’s certainly a condemnation of its characters, it seems to enjoy the sleaze a little too much. Actually, make that WAY too much. A beach party packed with bikini-clad bimbos is cut to again and again. Guys cheer. Women flash the camera. Beer is poured over naked bodies. The camera hangs on the exposed breasts of young women for at least 10 beats too long every time. It does this with every party scene, which just makes the cutaways all the more unnecessary. We get it, Karmin. You’re being ironic. But you really don’t need to revel in it as much as you do.
Spring Breakers has enough going on to merit a discussion on its preposterousness among those unfortunate enough to watch it, but I just don’t think it’s worth it for the untainted masses. It’s not focused enough to make an impact on anyone needing its twisted advice, and it’s too transparent to be the substantial work of art it aspires to be.
* * *
Mud, on the other hand, is as pure of heart as Spring Breakers is absent one. Telling the story of a young boy fighting with all his might for the survival of three separate romances, the latest addition to Matthew McConaughey’s cannon is as worthy as any entry from his historic hot streak of 2012.
McConaughey plays Mud, a man found living in a boat stuck in a tree by 14-year-old Elliot and his friend. Mud is trying to reunite with his girlfriend after an undisclosed incident, and he convinces the boys to help him. Simultaneously, Elliot is trying to cope with his parents’ tumultuous marriage and the prospect of his first girlfriend.
All of this makes Mud sound like a quaint little dramedy. It’s not. Jeff Nichols’ latest is more of a thriller, but exposing those elements would spoil some of the fun. It’s best to just trust in the man who made Take Shelter an edge-of-your-seat experience, along with a stellar cast including Michael Shannon and Sam Shepherd.
Headlining and earning it is McConaughey. Along with the young, convincing Tye Sheridan, McConaughey pulls the movie together with a quietly commanding turn. The character could have been a joke. He could have come off a little nuts. McConaughey keeps him straight. There are eccentricities, of course (everything to do with his lucky shirt is a bonus), but McConaughey manages to keep Mud – and Mud – together.
Now, if you’ll allow me to speculate a bit, I don’t think this role will be enough to earn McConaughey his first Oscar nomination. It’s not flashy enough for the Academy by itself, but if you pare it with his upcoming AIDs drama Dallas Buyers Club and Martin Scorecese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, it should be enough to push voters over the edge for one of those two roles. It always helps to have more than one great performance in a year when you’re looking for Oscar. Voters usually honor the man and not the role, so McConaughey is in good position early with a solid turn in Mud and the award-baiting movies still to come.
With these three roles, 2013 could be an even bigger year for McConaughey than 2012. And that’s saying something