When James Franco announced a few months back that he was tackling adaptations of both Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian as writer and director, the general consensus was a surprising “why not?”. Despite the overwhelming odds that faced Franco (both are considered impossible-to-adapt works and both have been tackled unsuccessfully several times in the past), no one seemed to think that Franco wasn’t up to the task. And why wouldn’t he be? Over the last couple of years, Franco has managed to get several degrees, publish a book of short stories, teach a class at NYU, have at least one art show of his work, host the Academy Awards, direct a documentary about Saturday Night Live and make recurring appearances on General Hospital while also starring in movies that run the gamut from the very serious (127 Hours) to the very dumb (Your Highness).
But apart from his supernatural proficiency at juggling what amounts to basically five lives, there wasn’t much in Franco’s oeuvre that suggested he could actually write and direct a narrative feature film. His extensive portfolio features documentaries and prominent experimental shorts (like the ones he made to coincide with R.E.M.’s last album) but nothing nearly as ambitious as Blood Meridian. What few know is that Franco already has four features under his belt; the only one that has seen any kind of home-video release thus far, however, is his second effort: 2005’s The Ape, a straight-to-DVD release that features Franco rolling his eyes at a gorilla wearing a Hawaiian shirt on the cover.
Now, I understand Franco dabbles in the low-brow from time to time, but there’s a giant fucking chasm between Dunston Checks In and As I Lay Dying. It sort of boggled my mind that a man who can teach a class about poetry would also pour his heart and soul into a movie that would tickle Homer Simpson pink. Heretofore unmanned territory of the rabbit hole was uncovered earlier this summer when Franco toplined the surprisingly effective Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Was this recurring motif of apes part of a grandiose, decade-long conceptual art project? After all, I can think of few actors who have appeared in more than one ape-related project (besides Roddy McDowall, of course). What about apes is so fascinating to James Franco? What came first, James Franco or The Ape? What evil lies in the hearts of men?
Harry (Franco) is a wannabe writer who finds himself unable to work in the house he shares with his wife and kid, so he takes an apartment in the city in order to better fuel the creative juices. Despite holding an unglamorous human resources job at a phone company, Harry is convinced that he’s the next Dostoyevsky (he even has a framed picture of everyone’s favourite beardo bummer). He’s barely even settled into his new digs when he’s immediately accosted by a wise-cracking gorilla dressed like your dad at a Jimmy Buffet concert. The Ape (as he refers to himself) is a streetwise, New York type of chimp who’s literally part of the apartment’s lease; despite Harry’s protests, he has a legally binding agreement to live with this Poochie-type primate.
The Ape very quickly imposes himself in Harry’s life, calling his wife fat, accusing him of being gay, whipping a handful of his actual shit at him and generally being a loud and obnoxious manifestation of id. Although played by a dude named Brian Lally, the ape is essentially a less hairy version of Robin Williams, wildly working through half-a-dozen stock accents and mugging wildly under the inexpressive monkey mask. In a single day, the ape manages to give Harry lice and get him in hot water at work for working on personal projects. Suffice to say that Harry’s life is probably not gonna be greatly bettered by this simian roommate of his.
If all of this doesn’t sound very funny, it’s because The Ape is a dark comedy at its lightest and a psychological drama about the turmoil of the artist’s tragedy at its darkest. Being unfunny is a conscious decision, not an inherent flaw. That having been said, I can’t imagine why a wild-and-crazy-guy gorilla is the best way to explore the turmoil of the artist’s tragedy. The Ape basically represents Harry’s writer’s block and his desire to create; if this wasn’t obvious enough, Franco throws up a Dostoyevsky quote about writing to ‘get a novel off my back’. Although The Ape isn’t significantly more ridiculous than any other movie about a writer struggling with writer’s block (many Stephen King movies come to mind, most notably The Dark Half), it has to be the only one designed around a cutesy play on the expression ‘monkey on my back’.
Soon the ape has managed to ingratiate himself to Harry as the voice of reason. He’s convinced Harry to give his wife the go-ahead to cheat on him with her pottery teacher, made him appear crazy to his landlady for thinking there was an ape clause in the lease, fucked up an important presentation and eventually leads him blow up in his uptight, gold-digging boss’ face, which she responds to rather favorably by banging Harry right then and there. None of these things, as you can probably imagine, are getting him anywhere closer to writing the great American novel, but they’re putting him on a sure path to destruction.
As written by Franco and Spongebob Squarepants writer Merriwether Williams and clearly designed for the stage, The Ape finds its biggest flaw in its titular character. A protagonist wrestling with a physical manifestation of their problems certainly isn’t uncommon in plays, but it’s one of the myriad of things that doesn’t translate to the screen. This is doubly obvious when the manifestation of your problems is a dude in an extremely fake-looking, Halloween-y ape suit. And, at the risk of contradicting myself, The Ape isn’t in the movie enough to make his presence as the straw that breaks the camel’s back wholly compelling. He’s a completely unlikeable presence by design but it doesn’t really work when the brunt of the movie is spent in the presence of even more unlikeable characters that don’t have the advantage of punctuating their miserable existence with some gross-out gags.
Franco does acquit himself rather well as a director. From what I had heard about his creative ambitions, I expected a lot more out-of-focus shots of wilted roses and naked chicks in tiaras painting themselves with menstrual blood (or, you know, something like that). Franco opens up the claustrophobic setups skilfully and manages to make a potentially laughable concept at least tolerable for its entire running time. Granted, it’s a giant fucking step from Franco and an ape dicking around to As I Lay Dying but Franco does a much better job with the material than a straight-to-DVD monkey movie would suggest.
So why does it exist?
The Ape fails on a lot of levels. As a wacky Bedtime for Bonzo type monkey movie, it lacks the basic hijinx (only one poo flinging, zero bananas) required. As a two-fisted chamber piece, it’s too open and meandering. As a dark drama about the slow disintegration of the creative mind, it contains far too many masturbation jokes and plastic ape costumes. It certainly fails in consistently interesting and provocative ways; for better or for worse, Franco has not made a dull movie. But that doesn’t explain why the movie exists.
Years from now, when the James Franco class that’s already being taught at some forward-thinking college is part of the global curriculum and all children are required to read Palo Alto in the 8th grade, people will study The Ape and see in it the base of all things Franco. It has the masturbation jokes that lead back to his work with Judd Apatow; the obsession with literature so present in his studies as well as the ostensible adaptations of Cormac McCarthy, William Faulkner and (probably) Infinite Jest that lie in his future; the fascination with sitcom tropes that popped up in his experimental Three’s Company film; and the mumbly method acting punctuated with vaudeville mugging that informed his seminal performance in the third Spider-Man film. The Ape is Franco boiled down to his essence, a personal effort lending total credence to the auteur theory.
It’s also far from a great movie. But that’ll hardly matter in the eve of a Brave New Franco World.