For 'This Is the End's' James Franco, it never really seems to be

The snow is piling up on the streets of small-town Utah, and James Franco is talking about sex.

He is talking about sex in the way James Franco talks about sex: as a narrative tool, as a humanizing mechanism, as a way to help us understand academic differences between film and literature.

"We've been using violence as a storytelling device for decades, but we've only just begun to use sex that way instead of as simply something to shock," he says, responding to a straightforward interview question with a disquisition on sexuality and film. Despite Franco's charm and disheveled good looks, there is something clinical, earnest, unsexy about him. Hearing him talk about sex is like hearing one of the world's great chefs talk about fine food and feeling no discernible appetite.

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The previous evening, Franco had shown his documentary "Kink," about a fetish website, to a midnight audience at the Sundance Film Festival. The audience was uncomfortable, in a way that midnight Sundance audiences are seldom uncomfortable. Watching them from the back of the theater, Franco found himself surprised. But as he reflects on it now, he does not primarily see in the audience's reaction a comment on sexuality. He sees a difference between the novelistic and the cinematic.

"Everybody likes to talk about sex, but when you put it on film it's somehow different," he says, professorially. "I was thinking at that moment: All the 'Fifty Shades of Grey' readers? This is what you're reading about."

In the last decade, Franco has created a rich set of personalities on-screen — as the Emerald City wizard, as the "Pineapple Express" pot dealer, as "127 Hours'" quixotic hiker, as "Spider-Man's" Harry Osborn, as Harvey Milk's boyfriend. He has created them so richly that he has joined the elite ranks of actors who have the chance to create a rich personality off-screen. But for James Franco that is not enough. For James Franco, there always must be a Francian twist.

And so in "This Is the End," the Seth Rogen-directed apocalypse comedy hit in theaters, he plays, as one character calls him, a "pretentious … nerd," inclined to windy digressions about art and philosophy. He is named James Franco and looks like James Franco and seems to act like James Franco and lives in a house said to be owned by James Franco, where he hangs his own painterly odes to Rogen and James Franco. But he is not James Franco.

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For perhaps the first time we have an actor who in real life has winkingly created a movie-worthy character, and then in the movies has created a character who winks back to his real life. There are other actors in "This Is the End" playing a distorted version of themselves. But Franco is playing a distorted version of the public character he created, which is itself a distortion of his real self.

Which makes for a lot of distortion and a need for headache medicine.

Other stars have also moved between big and small projects, and some have side gigs in music or writing. But few have done it so prolifically or so aggressively. And none have done it with this degree of meta-flair. Perhaps that's why, though Franco is ubiquitous on movie marquees and Twitter feeds, it is the character of James Franco we mostly see and why we know so comparatively little about his personal life. As his "This Is the End" costar Jay Baruchel said when asked if Franco's on-screen digs reflected his real-life ones, "I can't vouch for the fact that James Franco even lives in a house. He might not. He might live in a tent city somewhere."

The entertainment media have long tried to decipher him. They've noted with some glee when the shtick doesn't work — see under: the mainstream precincts of the 2011 Oscars — and tried to understand when and why it does.

The success of the just-how-real-is-it "This Is the End" (minus the apocalypse, of course) offers a fine moment to stop and try our hand at the genre. Over the last four months, I've interviewed Franco on five occasions. By interacting with him from Utah to Pasadena to the French Riviera, talking with him about a Disney blockbuster, a sex documentary, a William Faulkner adaptation, Franco has become clearer to me. Or at least his murkiness has become clearer.

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Is his need to take on seemingly every third film in Hollywood and half the art projects in Silver Lake and Williamsburg a matter of childish appetite, a kind of artistic lack of impulse control? Or is it savvily born of the realization that his fame won't last forever so he might as well take advantage while he can? Does he put up with the trappings of celebrity so he can indulge his more esoteric instincts, or does he indulge in more esoteric instincts so he can be a more well-rounded or well-regarded celebrity?

Are his postmodern turns — playing a character named "Franco" in a "General Hospital" episode so he can make a faux-documentary about a man named "James Franco" starring in a "General Hospital" episode — meant to sincerely say something about the state of art, or are they the cinematic napkin-doodles of a man with too much clout and not enough self-awareness?

Is he, in other words, in on the joke?

There are questions that can be answered and questions that can be raised and questions that seem to beget only more questions. And if that sounds like something James Franco might say, well, I guess an interview subject rubs off on you after a while.

A wizard's world