Who am I to say that Seth Rogen should stop hanging out with James Franco? I’m a big ol’, Knocked Up-lovin’, The Green Hornet-defendin’ Seth Rogen fan, that’s who: Big enough to understand that a bromance forged amidst the shaggy brilliance of Freaks and Geeks is not easily broken. Big enough to allow that Pineapple Express, despite its third-act choke, seemed, at the time, to signal the beginning of a promising partnership. But we’re seven years out from that two-thirds-baked buddy flick and where has Rogen’s relationship with Franco gotten him since? Topless on the backseat of a motorcycle? Playing second fiddle for Franco’s cloying SNL monologue, copping awkwardly to the role of accomplice in the crime that is The Interview?
I’m not even alluding to the fact that U.S. intelligence now believes that the recent Sony hacks were committed in direct retaliation for the movie’s scheduled holiday release. It’s true that what started out sounding like an absurd rumor — maybe even a publicity scheme — has become a nightmare for Sony. Following additional threats, major theater chains around the country began shutting down their plans for exhibition, leading Sony to finally pull the plug on the premiere altogether. It just goes to show: James Franco is that friend that’s always getting you into some kind of trouble. But The Interview’s impact on global politics is not at issue here — at least not with me. The funny thing is that, as a result of the hacks, it has come to light that, even before the controversy, execs within Sony were ice cold on The Interview. Guess whose fault that is?
Emails sent from UK Sony Pictures exec Peter Taylor to president of Sony Pictures Releasing International Steven O'Dell are particularly harsh, describing the comedy as a “misfire,” “unfunny and repetitive,” with “a level of realistic violence that would be shocking in a horror movie.” Taylor holds one of the film’s co-stars in particularly low regard: “James Franco proves once again that irritation is his strong suit which is a shame because the character could have been appealing and funny out of his hands.” —Defamer
There is a new rumor, admittedly popular among cynics, that Sony did not spike the feature under the specter of more violence. Some believe the company is using the threats as cover to avoid dropping this turd in cineplexes and losing equal amounts of cash and credibility. It sounds crazy, I know; studios fearlessly issue crap all the time and remain virtually unscathed. But if the theory is true, it’s a powerful testimony: A major motion picture studio will have sabotaged it’s own holiday schedule because James Franco can’t deliver a decent punchline. Somewhere in this story, there’s a really good pun about “hacks.”
Lest this turn into some questionably motivated James Franco-bashing session, let me say that I have enjoyed the man’s work in the past: City By The Sea,127 Hours, Milk, the aforementioned Freaks and Geeks. And I recognize that he has gained a reputation as a strong dramatic actor in such films as Howl and Spring Breakers. I even appreciate the writer-producer-actor-poet’s aggressively multi-genre, multi-disciplinary approach to making art — even while his efforts to appear self-deprecating and dude-like in the face of such deliberate ubiquity doesn’t quite ring sincere. Unfortunately, I remember Franco most for being noticeably unconvincing in motion pictures where armies of special effects experts had been hired at great expense to take the pressure off the actors. Spider-Man, anyone? In Rise of the Planet of the Apes he was outclassed by a CG chimp. I understand that Andy Serkis could very well be the world’s mightiest thespian, but come on, Harry Osborn.
And, what of all these so-called serious dramatic films that Franco’s been involved in lately, as a writer, director, or producer, as well as an actor? How come his good pal Seth Rogen doesn’t get a chance to show off his chops in Palo Alto, As I Lay Dying, Child of God, or The Sound and the Fury. Hook a brother up, Ginsberg. Instead, ever since Rogen generously helped dupe audiences into believing that Franco was his comedic equal in Pineapple Express, Franco has not seen fit to reciprocate on the Oscar-bait side of things. Who knows how Hollywood works? But, from the outside, it looks like James only calls his buddy Seth up for the lowbrow and/or goofy stuff while keeping the prestige parts for himself and his actorly friends. Maybe he’s afraid of the competition. (More on that later.)
Rogen is actually credited as a writer, producer, and director on The Interview, so it would be unfair to intimate that Franco is completely to blame for what is shaping up to be a cultural and critical fiasco of global proportions. But it does seem like Franco brings out the worst in Rogen. Just look at the press and viral promotion leading up to the movie’s release: It’s been a slow leak of lazy, juvenile humor and forced homoerotic sight gags; Rogen and Franco being naked bros together — how long was this stuff supposed to stay funny? One might look at Rogen’s early career and suggest that such dude humor is his default schtick. But, while the sludge that was This Is the End sullied many a complicit comedian, I would argue that Rogen’s most iconic neanderthals dating back at least to The 40-Year-Old Virgin’s Cal have been laced with an endearing and surprising sensitivity. He’s also had quite a few highlights working outside of his comfort zone.
Rogen extended his sensitive buddy motif from Funny People, holding his own against Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the wildly underrated 50/50. (I haven’t watched The Guilt Trip yet, but that’s not because he and Barbra Streisand did not post nude pictures of themselves on Instagram.) For you intrepid Netflix divers, Rogen has a scene at the end of the melancholic indie Take This Waltz with Michelle Williams that is on par with any of James Franco’s best brooding. Obviously, these guys love playing themselves — again, This Is The End is the worst manifestation of this. But Rogen’s Rogen — nervous, affable, and believably kind — easily outpaces the strained, overtly calculated shit-devouring grin of Franco’s Franco. Just look at Franco surreptitiously slamming his much less known but way funnier younger brother on SNL. Sibling jealously is ugly, dude.
In a recent episode of HBO’s The Comeback, Lisa Kudrow’s put-upon Valerie Cherish is at the mercy of a surly showrunner hellbent on railroading her into a humiliating oral sex scene. Seth Rogen, playing Cherish’s higher profile co-star Seth Rogen, realizes he has walked into an unseemly, unfair battle with roots outside professionalism, diffuses the moment with humor, and intercedes on the actress’ behalf. It is a gentle and humane act, crudely but effectively executed. It’s something you can somehow easily imagine the real Seth Rogen doing — unless James Franco was around to goad him, in which case they’d probably both just take off their pants.