Franco takes dark turn in pretentious crime drama

Thu Apr 29, 2010 2:02am EDT
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By Frank Scheck

NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - James Franco has exhibited a surprising flair for comedy in his recent films, and it's a shame he couldn't have brought some of that to the fore in "William Vincent."

This dour, molasses-paced neo-noir, about a mysterious figure who becomes embroiled with a nasty criminal and his cohorts, sacrifices coherence and credibility for pretentious stylization.

The film, which recently received its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, takes place in a Manhattan so darkly photographed that you can barely see what's on the screen. It centers on a young man (Franco) who has taken on a new identity for unrevealed reasons and has adopted a quiet solitary lifestyle in Chinatown. Spending most of his time wandering the city streets, eating alone in restaurants and editing nature videos in his dark storefront apartment, William also engages in the occasional petty crime, including an aborted pickpocket attempt that attracts the interest of a smooth criminal type referred to only as "Boss" (Josh Lucas).

Recruited in gently menacing fashion by soft-spoken henchman Victor (Martin Donovan), William begins working for the crime boss, with occasionally violent results. More problematic, he finds himself falling in love with his other employee, Ann (Julianne Nicholson), whose specialty is providing sexual favors.

Writer-director-editor Jay Anania is certainly effective in providing an atmosphere of quiet tension throughout the sluggishly paced film. But atmosphere is really all it has to offer, and the airless, humorless proceedings, narrated by Franco in an unwavering monotone and frequently accompanied by ominous piano chords on the soundtrack, quickly prove tedious.

Not helping matters are such stylistic conceits as having Franco's character interact at various times with his 16-year-old self or the leaden dialogue, which is filled with endless pauses and delivered by everyone in soft tones, creating a narcoleptic effect. ("You talk like you're in a movie," William all too accurately observes to Victor at one point.)

Franco's recessive performance -- clearly meant to evoke an air of mystery -- is more tedious than intriguing, and Lucas and Nicholson don't fare much better. Only Donovan (who has plenty of experience with this sort of thing thanks to his work with directors like Hal Hartley) manages to invest his subtle characterization with elements of life.

<p>Cast member James Franco from the movie "Howl" poses for a portrait during the 2010 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah January 22, 2010. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni</p>