No one can call James Franco unambitious. From attending six schools to continuing to film movies and TV, to working sporadically as a performance-artist, to teaching one course on film and collaborating on another class on himself (yes, himself), Franco is a man of many, many parts.
Breadth of talent is certainly impressive, but doing a million things is not the same as doing a million things well. This is like calling someone who knows just a few words in many languages "multilingual." And for this, there are no better examples than James Franco's careers.
It all started with the Green Goblin's return to UCLA.
Consider this from a drooling GQ profile from September 2008:
"I think I broke the record for the number of units I'm taking this quarter," he says. The standard limit is nineteen, though students sometimes manage to take a few more. Twenty-three, say, or twenty-four. Franco is taking sixty-two.
What does that really mean? Classes in the humanities at UCLA generally vary from three to five units. Let's average it at four. That would have left Franco with about 15-16 courses, while the "average student" was only allowed to take about four. And while courses vary in hours per week from one to five (between discussions and lectures), let's go with an average of three hours a week per class (on the low side). That would leave him with a low-balled average of 45 hours per week of pure, on-campus class time.
And finals? Many courses have three-hour finals scheduled into set blocks that most undergrads wouldn't dream of toying with. Clearly some exceptions were made for the future performance artist, because even if we, again, underestimate his finals week load, he must have gone through about 25-30 hours of testing, not to mention any essay writing.
UCLA Magazine noted that Franco was able to carry that workload while simultaneously working on movies. And, for good measure, he maintained a GPA above 3.5.
And he wrote a novel for his honors thesis.
After finishing his UCLA degree, Franco went on to simultaneously enroll in three master's programs: Columbia's MFA, Brooklyn College for creative writing, and NYU's Tisch School of the Arts for directing (where he earned a D in acting, not for want of good work but for poor attendance -- he happened to be filming a movie).
He's now at Yale studying for a Ph.D. in English, enrolled at the Rhode Island School of Design, Warren Wilson College for poetry, teaching a class at Tisch on film and collaborating on a course at Columbia College Hollywood on... himself.
He's also reportedly returning to NYU in May for a second MFA in film editing (despite that D at Tisch).
The question isn't so much "Is James Franco really that smart?" He very well may be. But it's clear that regardless of the amount of effort he actually seems to be putting into his academic and literary pursuits, it's patently obvious that were it not for his acting and modeling career, he could not simultaneously enroll in so many programs on so many prestigious campuses.
So how is the work? The Oscars broadcast he and Anne Hathaway helmed was ranked among the worst in the Academy's history, the New York Times called his first art show "a confusing mix of the clueless and the halfway promising" and his short story published in Esquire was pretty widely panned.
Really, here's a taste of his fiction:
Joe smokes. His window is all the way down, and he breathes his smoke out the black gaping gap.
"Fuck you, Joe, you're an idiot."
"You're an idiot."
"I know," I say. And I am. I am friends with a slug, and my other friends are pigs and wolves. I never make friends with nice things, just the shit.
Fellow Yale Ph.D. student Craig Fehrman plucked another gem from Palo Alto, the Scribner collection of his stories:
In "American History," another one of Palo Alto's better stories, a tough black guy tells someone to "break off this motherfucking honky." Here's Franco's gloss on this: "It came out of his cruel face like a rocky stream." What does that even mean? Are the words the rocks or the water? And what does that make the face?
Ferhman notes that in a blurb for Palo Alto, Franco's Columbia fiction prof Ben Marcus gushes about his pupil's "intense artistry," and goes on to compare him to Kathy Acker. What did Marcus have to say about Jonathan Franzen? Ferhman rightly includes that Marcus derides the author of The Corrections and Freedom as "creating a performance that was sometimes more compelling than his own fiction."
Franco's celebrity is clearly not beside the point. It is the point.
It's tempting to gloss everything Franco is doing as some postmodern exercise in performance, as though he's consciously operating on some Baudrillardian level of hyperreality. Universities and colleges in different states, movies and TV shows, novels, short stories, museum exhibits -- why not? If Andy Warhol can urinate on a canvas and show it in a museum, clearly Franco should be able to get away with hosting a nationally televised award's show with that "Damn right I don't give a damn" smirk.
But there's a real problem with what New York Magazine calls "The Franco Project": By accepting Franco into their universities and publishing houses with such gusto, these institutions create a mockery of themselves. Though it's fine for UCLA to blush about the astounding course-load of its dropout turned megawatt literary creation, many close to the campus were stung not only by the school's decision to offer Franco the commencement speech (having a fellow student impart wisdom on you doesn't seem that appealing, it seems) and his last-minute cancellation, but also by his gleeful parody of the incident on Funny or Die.
And though it's cute for Franco to fist-pump and name-check NYU at the Oscars, it's less charming when the nationally-respected university offers a graduate-level teaching gig to someone who is clearly too busy to provide a meaningful academic experience (he'll be skyping into the Columbia College Hollywood class on himself "depending on his schedule").
The joke, it seems, is on them.