Rabbit Bandini Films
James Franco’s desire to prove himself in almost every medium of art merits serious discussion, especially when his eagerness puts him on a path to direct an adaptation of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury with screenwriter Matt Rager. The novel is widely considered to be one of the greatest English-language works of the 20th century, praised for its successful use of stream of consciousness writing, unorthodox structure, and difficult characters. It’s not a simple book, to say the least, and if it’s going to be adapted, it deserves more than a simple movie.
To make matters exponentially riskier for Franco, he himself plays one of the film’s leads, Benjy, a 33-year-old man with an unidentified cognitive disability. Franco holds about a third of the screen time, though he has essentially no dialogue with the exception of moans, shouts, and whispers. Rager’s screenplay is split into three parts, similar to the four parts in the novel. Benjy’s perspective conducts the first part, and parts two and three follow his brothers, Quentin (Jacob Loeb) and Jason (Scott Haze).
These three first-person narratives present a multi-dimensional view of the Compsons, a family of former aristocrats in Jefferson, Mississippi whose reputation and monetary value are plummeting. In addition to being split into three viewpoints that cover similar time periods, the narratives themselves jump around chronologically. The cast is rounded out by Ahna O’Reilly as the boys’ sister, Tim Blake Nelson as the siblings’ father, and Loretta Devine as Dilsey, the matriach of the family’s servants. Franco’s friends Seth Rogen and Danny McBride also make brief cameo appearances.
One of the inherent issues with Franco’s grand scheme here is casting himself as Benjy. Despite his acting work in dramas like 127 Hours, Milk and more, initially thinking of Franco as anything other than a comedian is difficult. That’s not to say that a talented comedic actor could never adequately portray a character such as Benjy, with such an extreme disability, but when it’s James Franco – something just feels…off. Is that completely unfair? Probably. But was my gut-reaction at Franco’s portrayal to be offended? Yes. In fairness – the feeling fades eventually, as it’s clear that Franco respects the character and commits entirely, and my response is based almost entirely on awkward, privileged guilt.
Franco has a different set of teeth as Benjy, but that and timely clothing aside, he just looks like James Franco, which also doesn’t help the unfortunate reception of the character. Following in the novel’s footsteps by breaking the screenplay into large, separate parts doesn’t help much either, in this regard. Benjy holds center screen for almost all of act one but features much less in the rest of the film. So in act two and three, every time Benjy reappears after a notable absence, it’s hard not to think “there’s James Franco again” and to be reminded of things like this.
James-Franco-prejudices aside, the performances in Sound and the Fury are each moving in their own right, although some characters don’t seem to be written as lovingly as others. While most of Quentin’s act feels choppy and rushed, Jason’s act seems to stretch over half of the film and is the only portion that follows a smooth, consistent timeline. (In the novel, there is a fourth portion that focuses on Dilsey; in Franco’s film, this is combined with the third portion to make the third act – “Jason.”) The third act marks the best moments of the film, those that follow the relationship of Jason and his strong-willed niece, Miss Quentin (Joey King).
Overall, The Sound and the Fury isn’t a poorly made film, especially for what many will consider to be just another James Franco passion project, but that’s due mostly in part to the rich source material and acting talent involved. Franco does continue to show promise with the occasional gorgeous shot, but the majority of the film feels artistically copied more so than inspired by every piece of Oscar bait.
Lastly, for such an enigmatic, public figure, it’s fair to question Franco’s motives portraying Benjy. If he’s making a statement about actors that play handicapped people with award ambitions, the joke’s been done before. One has to assume that he truly believes in himself so blindly that he thought it appropriate to cast himself as Benjy Compson, and that’s not cool.
The Upside: Resonant characters from a classic novel portrayed strongly by talented actors.
The Downside: One of those actors is James Franco, who kind of makes everything – even his cognitively disabled character – feel like a (?) joke.
On the Side: This is essentially the only film adaptation of Faulkner’s novel, as the 1959 Sound and the Fury has nearly nothing to do with Faulkner’s work.