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BWW Reviews: James Franco's ACTORS ANONYMOUS - New Novel Blurs Fact and Fiction To Interesting But Uninspiring Results

Lots of people love to hate James Franco. The general consensus seems to be that Franco became popular through lots of luck and little talent, and he is now notorious for dabbling (or meddling, depending whom you ask) in any and every arts field. From performance artist to hip-hop collaborator, from t-shirt designer to film professor, Franco has just about tried it all.

For some reason, I hate to love James Franco. When I somehow make it past his smug demeanor and a brainless film repertoire, I believe there's a genuine desire to learn, to experiment, to work, and to become a better artist through these experiences. In his position, I'd probably desire to do the same- make amateurish attempts at whatever opportunity strikes my interest, knowing that I'd have an acting career and enough popularity to fall back on (I mean, who has an acting career as their 'back-up' job?) There has always seemed to be an underlying anxiety about Franco, a self-awareness of his film career and his privilege and a fear of committing to one art form, perhaps best exhibited by his enrollment in nearly half a dozen graduate programs throughout the country.

This anxiety is at the forefront of Franco's latest venture as a writer, ACTORS ANONYMOUS, a novel that collects several short, interconnected pieces about actors and/or acting. They range in genre and form. Some are brief fictional pieces about people who encounter acting in some way at crucial points in their lives. For some, it's a chosen career, for others, it's a way to get by under difficult circumstances (like a McDonald's drive-thru worker who adopts different accents to make his job more exciting). Interspersed among these narratives are semi-autobiographical reflections, film manifestos, lists, and other nebulous chapters that seem to present Franco's unmitigated beliefs on his career and his passion for film. Whether they actually are, however, is a tricky question.

The best parts of the novel, hands-down, are these self-reflection pieces, in which his passion for acting and a unique writing style are most adequately presented. Some of these pieces also come across as confessional. There is an obsession with actor biographies (River Phoenix, Jack Nicholson, Marlon Brando, and several others are discussed), which I believe comes out of a frustrating attempt to compare their careers, or use them to inspire, Franco's own career. There is also an awareness of his celebrity persona, which Franco sometimes playfully engages with. One recurring topic that stood out to me is a concern over the women he has encountered as a celebrity. Rape or brutal sexual acts are at least mentioned in nearly every narrative, and one of Franco's 'autobiographical' stories recounts the methods he would use to pick up women at film events.

The fictional pieces are interesting to read but fail to make an impression. His characters are sympathetic, but a bit repetitive, and their observations about acting aren't exactly new or insightful. Some experiment with form (there's a chapter clearly inspired by House of Leaves' story-within-a-story-within-a-meta-story) but they fail to be engaging. As a whole, the novel struggles to inspire, but if you're in the business of analyzing who the real James Franco is, there's plenty to dissect in here.

Photo Credit: The Washington Post

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