After convincing pomo stuntman James Franco into a guest turn on General Hospital and a career retrospective of sorts in Erased James Franco, an art film in which the Oscar nominee recreates performances from his filmography, multimedia artist Carter could perhaps make another feature about how he talked Franco and Catherine Keener into starring in a wilting frippery like his new mental-illness drama Maladies.
Franco plays a character named James who’s a distant simulacrum of the performer himself — a former soap-opera actor who suffers from the same psychological sickness that afflicts so many other movie characters: He flinches when he’s touched, listens to the dial tone when distressed, and hallucinates a voice that narrates what he does and how he feels. James lives with his doll-like sister (Fallon Goodson) and best friend Catherine (Keener), a painter who tolerates the siblings’ eccentricities in the hopes that they will repay her kindness by accepting her occasional cross-dressing.
The ’70s setting helps Carter explore his main idea — that certain diseases are deemed acceptable, while others are not. (Alan Cumming makes a brief cameo to call Catherine a “disgusting man-lady.”) The social construction of illness is certainly a worthy topic, but Carter situates his characters far from any semblance of a plot and even further from his heart.
Maladies pulses just once with feeling, when neighbor Delmar (David Strathairn), a repressed homosexual in love with James, gazes upon him with tragic lust, distraught that he can never have what his heart needs. The rest is just posing.