It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
"This is a story about an actor who is no longer acting." intones the voiceover narrator at the beginning of "Maladies", the latest collaboration between artist/filmmaker Carter and jack-of-all-trades James Franco, an actor who also could be said to be "no longer acting", or not entirely. Carter's debut feature was 2008's "Erased James Franco", an experimental presentation with the actor re-enacting scenes from his own films. James Franco's entire career by now has become an exercise in self-aware commenting-on-itself, and one wonders if the culture has reached its saturation point in that regard. Here, in "Maladies", he plays a guy named James who was a one-time soap opera actor (a reference to Franco's own stint on "General Hospital"), and has left the business in order to write a novel. But he can't seem to get any real work done. Despite some game acting (and one truly superb moment from David Strathairn), "Maladies" remains on too low a boil to communicate any sense of stakes for the various characters. It seems to be trying to say something about creativity, and living one's life on one's own terms, but it's a muddle.
Stylistically, "Maladies" seems to take place in mid-1960s New York, with big cars and women wearing flared skirts and pillbox hats with little nets, but in the first scene, the television shows breaking-news footage of the mass murder/suicide of Jim Jones' People's Temple in Guyana, which went down in 1978. The anachronisms feel deliberate, but do not communicate anything specific. Since the film cannot be nailed down to one era, the period clothing feel like costumes, the characters feel like tourists in that world, as opposed to living breathing inhabitants of a certain place and time.
James lives in a big cluttered house in a beachy town on the outskirts of New York with his mentally ill sister, Patricia (Fallon Goodson), and his good friend and artistic ally Catherine (Catherine Keener), who sometimes dresses up as a man, penciling on a lopsided mustache. Catherine is a painter, whose giant complicated mural showing a schooner plowing through stormy seas hangs on the wall in the living room. Patricia is straight out of a Tennessee Williams plays, dancing around to records when she's by herself, defacing Catherine's paintings when left alone with them, and floating aimlessly around the house wearing lacy shirts and combing her tangled Louise Brooks wig. James completes the trio.
James is also mentally ill to some undiagnosed degree, but in Franco's hands it just looks like a combination of quirks. He does not like to be touched. He guzzles down glass after glass of water. He is overwhelmed with confusion by the turn in his own hallway. He turns the radio on and off throughout the night to hear the static. The narrator of the film talks directly to James, as well as narrates what James is feeling. Sometimes James talks back to the narrator, answering its questions. The film is broken up into "chapters" with headings like "Feelings," "Symmetry," and we see James, Patricia and Catherine sitting around their house, or going on an outing to a diner, having long rambling conversations about art, and what it means to them. James' time as a soap opera actor is referenced, on occasion: He left the show, although the rumor is out there that he was fired, and he doesn't like to talk about it.