Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Fearless Franco Delivers in Subversive and Surreal 'Spring Breakers'

Mid-movie, the cast has a sing-along to Britney Spears' Everytime.
Spring Breakers isn’t a movie you watch so much as a film you experience. It’s an art film, but not in an urbane way. After all, the film does feature scenes that could be pulled straight from Cops, Girls Gone Wild and Grand Theft Auto, as well as James Franco playing a corn-rowed, tatted and gold-toothed drug-dealer named Alien who leads a cast sing-along to Britney Spears’ Everytime and simulates fellatio on a gun.

That makes the film sound like a campy comedy, but it’s really quite more than that. Although it’s darkly bonkers and emphatically provocative, at its heart, Spring Breakers is a melancholic message movie. It’s an indictment of an entire way of life embraced by a whole sect of shallow and desensitized youths – the spring break state of mind.

The bare-bones plot involves four college girls who rob a diner for the money to attend spring break in Florida, where they eventually befriend Alien and get mixed up in his decadent lifestyle and drug turf war. But really the story itself is of secondary concern – much more important is the way it’s told.

Writer/director Harmony Korine makes some interesting stylistic choices to create a surreal daze of a film. The most effective of these is the use of repetition, with some lines and even full on monologues being repeated multiple times. However, the varying color saturations, dissonant musical cues, hypnotic editing, and, hell, even the scene blocking, are all worth mentioning.
For his central quartet, writer-director Harmony Korine casts
three former Disney stars alongside his real-life wife.

The film’s casting is also noteworthy. Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens and Ashley Benson, all former child stars who made their names under the Disney banner, join Korine’s real-life wife Rachel to form the film’s central quartet.

Although the roles are intentionally underdeveloped, the against-type casting works to emphasize Korine’s genre subversion. One can easily imagine a glossy coming-of-age comedy starring these same actresses with this same exact title – Sisters of the Traveling Pants with a touch of Sex and the City thrown in. Korine knows this, and he exploits it to make a point about a party lifestyle that is simultaneously alluring and abhorrent.

As for Franco, well, it’s not a stretch to say pairing him with Korine could’ve been a real disaster since both have come to be known for a certain level of pretentiousness. However, the teaming proves to be a fruitful one. In Alien, they’ve created a uniquely contradictory, and perhaps even iconic, character. 

Although he’s glimpsed earlier in the film during a rap number (oh did I not mention he’s also a low-level rapper?), we first meet Alien when he bails the girls out of jail. It’s easy to think a character like this would trap these girls under his thumb and corrupt them via manipulation or force, but Alien is genial, uncontrolling and ultimately submissive to them. A man who came from nothing and has no family, Alien holds status and material things in the highest regard. He’s repulsively garish, and yet he’s also endearingly fragile and magnetically honest.

Although this could've been a Showgirls type of embarrassment,
Franco successfully navigates his way to a mesmerizing performance.
In some ways, he is a spiritual kin of Jay Gatsby (whose own movie treatment I reviewed earlier this year). There’s even a scene to mirror the one in which Gatsby proudly shows Daisy his lavish collection of clothing. Here, Alien proudly proclaims “look at my sheeyit” while pointing out his things, which include numerous automatic weapons, designer clothes, nun-chucks, and, best of all, a flat screen playing round-the-clock Scarface.

It’s a testament to Franco’s skills that he can take a ludicrous caricature like Alien and make him feel like a real human being. He’s turned this trick before of course – making Saul, the drug dealer from Pineapple Express, into far more of dynamic character than he had any right to be – but he’s working on a totally different level here. Alien could've proven an embarrassing undertaking, but Franco fearlessly puts his all into the role, coming across equal parts ridiculous and sincere. The end result is probably his best work to date.

Regardless of how one views the content of the film, it’s hard to argue against the craftsmanship on display. In a just world, the film would be a major player for end of the year awards in cinematography, editing, and directing. However, since Franco’s chances of a supporting nom are slim at best, I wouldn’t hold my breath on kudos for anything else.

It’s been weeks since I viewed this film, and, still, it lingers with me. Despite its experimental nature, Spring Breakers is an accessible film. It never approaches the frustrating ponderousness of something like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Synecdoche, New York or The Fountain. Whereas those films are undone by their sweeping ambition and opaque curiosities, Spring Breakers succeeds on the strength of a brisk pace and focused scope. With a run-time of 94 minutes, there’s very little fat on the film, and it manages to get in, captivate and get out before fatigue sets in. A-