“It’s like Leonardo,” marvels Cent, a fictionalized version of Kristen Stewart, when she comes across James Franco’s old notebook in the back of her “Day’s End” trailer.
The notebook, which technically belongs to the James Franco character (usually called “The Actor”) in his debut novel, “Actors Anonymous,” is a pretty adequate summary of the book itself, which alternates with increasing intensity between wishful thinking and vicious depression.
The novel is structured into a series of vignettes, each representing one of the 12 Steps of Actors Anonymous, a fictional addiction program modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous. Franco’s style is eclectic and experimental, and he flits constantly between narrators, giving the reader virtually nothing to hold it all together besides the common themes of addiction and performance that echo through most of the pieces.
The novel contains a script written by a drug-smuggling thug, a series of poems about River Phoenix, letters from Franco to his acting class and to his father, large sections written entirely in footnotes, an account of the death of The Actor, pages and pages of formless musings, a recovering heroin addict, a child in a school play, a Columbia student who meets Franco in the Butler stacks, an NYU student who meets Franco at Starbucks, a being called “The Great Director,” Comic Sans, and characters named Cunty, Diarrhea, Coach, and The Devil. It’s a little all over the place.
Most of Franco’s characters lack originality, though they are somehow both more honest and more delusional than their tropes. All the men either experience some traumatic event or commit some traumatic action—drug addiction, murder, violence, sexual abuse—while the women are bimbos whose motives and characterization almost exclusively revolve around sexual obsession with Franco. About half of them go insane and kill someone, usually in the midst of a Pirandello-esque confusion of character and self.
The misogynistic depiction of women actually becomes quite disturbing, and the author’s assumption that he can somehow walk it back by giving his god figure female pronouns is deeply aggravating. Honestly, though, it’s just another pebble in the heap of self-important pseudo-philosophy that can’t even pass the Bechdel test.
It’s hard to tell whether Franco knows that he’s writing a parody or that what he presents as an honest portrait of himself comes off as a caricature. About a quarter of the vignettes are essentially his own ramblings about acting, Hollywood, art, success, and fame. He invokes a lot of cinematic history without adding anything substantial and poses a lot of vague questions without really attempting to answer them. His only real solution is that an actor must have his own projects to be creatively free. It appears he hasn’t personally seen much success with this idea by any common metric, but that doesn’t seem to be the point.
Maybe Franco really is the misunderstood genius he so desperately seems to want to be—maybe in 80 years he’ll be Van Gogh and we’ll be those idiots who thought his stuff was stupid. Or maybe this whole exercise of his really is a gigantic performance piece.