The snow is piling up on the streets of small-town Utah, and James Franco is talking about sex.
He is talking about sex in the way James Franco talks about sex: as a narrative tool, as a humanizing mechanism, as a way to help us understand academic differences between film and literature.
“We’ve been using violence as a storytelling device for decades, but we’ve only just begun to use sex that way instead of as simply something to shock,” he says, responding to a straightforward interview question with a disquisition on sexuality and film. Despite Franco’s charm and disheveled good looks, there is something clinical, earnest, unsexy about him. Hearing him talk about sex is like hearing one of the world’s great chefs talk about fine food and feeling no discernible appetite.
The previous evening, Franco had shown his documentary “Kink,” about a fetish website, to a midnight audience at the Sundance Film Festival. The audience was uncomfortable, in a way that midnight Sundance audiences are seldom uncomfortable. Watching them from the back of the theater, Franco found himself surprised. But as he reflects on it now, he does not primarily see in the audience’s reaction a comment on sexuality. He sees a difference between the novelistic and the cinematic.
“Everybody likes to talk about sex, but when you put it on film it’s somehow different,” he says, professorially. “I was thinking at that moment: All the ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ readers? This is what you’re reading about.”
In the last decade, Franco has created a rich set of personalities on-screen — as the Emerald City wizard, as the “Pineapple Express” pot dealer, as “127 Hours'” quixotic hiker, as “Spider-Man’s” Harry Osborn, as Harvey Milk’s boyfriend. He has created them so richly that he has joined the elite ranks of actors who have the chance to create a rich personality off-screen. But for James Franco that is not enough. For James Franco, there always must be a Francian twist.
And so in “This Is the End,” the Seth Rogen-directed apocalypse comedy hit in theaters, he plays, as one character calls him, a “pretentious … nerd,” inclined to windy digressions about art and philosophy. He is named James Franco and looks like James Franco and seems to act like James Franco and lives in a house said to be owned by James Franco, where he hangs his own painterly odes to Rogen and James Franco. But he is not James Franco.