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Is James Franco S.F.’s Movie Mascot?

Musing on the actor's quirky fixation

Continuing what is rapidly becoming his modus operandi, the vaguely pervy, heavy-lidded Palo Alto native James Franco is involved in three very divergent films this month: a wide-release apocalyptic comedy (This Is the End, June 12), a fetish porn documentary (kink, Frameline, June 21), and a nearly unclassifiable flick (Interior. Leather Bar., Frameline). So what mysterious force accounts for Franco’s pinball oscillation between popcorn movies, highly indie oddities, and performance art stunts? Beats us, but it must have something to do with San Francisco. Consider the meandering chronology of Franco’s local career highlights:

It was his sharp turn as one-man support system Scott Smith in 2008’s Milk —and his tonsil hockey with Sean Penn—that shook off his Hollywood heartthrob shackles and introduced Franco to local directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, for whom he channeled the randy but brainy young Allen Ginsberg in 2010’s Howl. Some animalism from that perhaps seeped into his simian-friendly star turn as a quixotic gene-tweaking scientist in 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes (best appreciated as a boilerplate San Francisco disaster movie, complete with obligatory Golden Gate mayhem finale).

Then, safeguarding his indie cred, Franco appeared as an oily lawyer with eyes for a porn-newbie runaway in local author Stephen Elliott’s 2012 feature debut, About Cherry, whose milieu—the Mission-based porn hub kink.com—no doubt stoked Franco’s yen to executive-produce the aforementioned kink, a slice of life behind the BDSM scenes. These sexy times surely informed Franco’s Hugh Hefner in August’s Lovelace, a biopic about the Deep Throat star (again directed by Epstein and Friedman).

And now, just as we’re thinking that Franco has gone off the kinky, sex-crazed deep end—a theory bolstered by his recent creep-apotheosis as “Alien” in Spring Breakers—we find that he’ll grapple with teenage suburban ennui in Gia Coppola’s film adaptation of his short story collection, Palo Alto, later this year, proving that no matter how far out there Franco gets, he will always come home again.

Originally published in the June 2013 issue of San Francisco.

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