James Franco’s Sal Demands Your Attention Even As It Meanders


Like everything with James Franco’s name on it, Sal might stand a little taller in the world if it had been dispatched to us pseudonymously, without expectation — that is, if a film this intimate and meandering might have been picked up for distribution at all without the stamp of its celebrity author.

A stubbornly not-bad character study that’s moldered on the shelf a few years, Sal purports to examine the final day of Rebel Without a Cause actor Sal Mineo, who was stabbed to death outside his West Hollywood apartment in 1976. As Sal, Val Lauren is a charismatic motormouth, jabbering happily to friends and family about his new play, a gay-themed comedy, opening soon.

He swans about a featureless L.A. — the period setting and the microbudget mean no niceties like cars, extras, or interesting exteriors — telling lively stories about the gay sex that fascinates Franco the Artist almost as much as it cavalierly amuses the TV-roast friends of Franco the Star. His meandering never builds into drama, but Lauren commands attention even when the film seems to have wandered, such as during curiously intense massage and workout sequences.

As always, Franco demonstrates a talent for and interest in composition, performance, and the naked human moment. He never imbues the material with meaning, but he also never weighs it down with portents, and a long scene of Sal and his cast rehearsing his play stands as the (intentionally) funniest achievement in the Franco oeuvre. The ending comes from nowhere, as it did in life, but life bothered to do something Franco doesn’t — make all this feel like it matters.

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