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Postcard from Sundance: It’s James Franco Day!

Two movies, one man, and a whole lot of ecstatic fans

James Franco in I Am Michael

James Franco in I Am Michael 

 

This is the final dispatch in our series of stories from the Sundance Film Festival. 

 

James Franco is by far the most popular celebrity at Sundance. When there’s a panel with his name on it, hordes of fans come swarming. When he stars in a movie, the theater fills to capacity. When he walks into the theater to take his seat at the world premiere of I Am Michael, the audience of roughly 1,300 people whips out their smartphones to snap a picture, even if the result will be a fuzzy image that more closely resembles Sasquatch then a Hollywood heartthrob. Celebrities are more or less part of the wallpaper at Sundance, but in my experience at least, no one causes anywhere near the fan frenzy that Franco does.

Franco’s big name also comes with high expectations for the two films he’s showing at Sundance: True Story—in which he plays a psychopathic murderer opposite Jonah Hill’s workaholic disgraced journalist—and I Am Michael, in which he stars as Michael Glatze, the once heralded gay activist who later denounced his homosexuality and became a pastor. There is so much hype around these two films that it’s hard to go in without already feeling like you’re going to be let down. 

True Story is the one you’re more likely to see in wide release, and maybe even in Oscar contention. Despite Hill and Franco's comedy backgrounds, this movie is anything but funny. It's a psychological crime thriller—which, yes, is based on a true story—in which Hill plays Michael Finkel, a New York Times reporter who falls from grace after fabricating a piece about African cocoa farmers abusing children. Soon after he loses his job, he finds out that a killer has assumed his name while on the run in Mexico. Enter James Franco as Christian Longo, who has been accused of brutally murdering his wife and three children. Intrigued, Finkel writes to Longo, and the two then enter into an odd, unsettling friendship, the kind that makes you squirm in your seat. In the end, Hill surprises with a rage-filled performance, but Franco can't quite transcend his fundamental Franco-ness—it's more like watching someone play pretend than truly immerse himself in a role. 

In I Am Michael, Franco plays another complicated real-life character—in this case, the gay activist-turned-Christian pastor Michael Glatze. Glatze was once the managing editor of XY magazine, a groundbreaking publication for the gay community. He lives in the Castro with his boyfriend Bennett (Zachary Quinto) and seems very happy and engaged: He sports a bright bleached mop of a haircut, has lively discussions with his fellow editors, goes to raves and takes drugs. Life is good for Michael. Things go downhill when the couple moves to Fairfax, Nebraska and Michael starts having panic attacks. He finds solace in reading the Bible. Whether or not it’s writer-director Justin Kelly’s intention, you leave feeling sorry for Michael, a man seemingly consumed with severe anxiety. As for the acting? It still felt like James Franco as Michael Glatze, but maybe that’s what makes Franco such a star: the fact that his fans see him, not the character. It might also be his obsessive Instagramming.

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