By Laurie Coker
The term maladies refers to illnesses of sort, sicknesses mental or physical. In the film Maladies starring Catherine Keener and James Franco, the title Maladies refers to broken people, in particular three odd, quirky, damaged people who live in the same house and suffer from varying mental defects. The problem, however, with Maladies is not what is wrong with its characters, but rather what is wrong with this film. Director/writer Carter, yes, one name, like Cher or Madonna, can’t seem to decide in which decade to set his film and his characters bang around in situations which never clearly define their ailments or their purpose, leaving the audience nearly as confused and clueless as the film’s characters.
I spoke briefly to Keener and Carter on the red carpet before the SXSW screening, asking mostly questions regarding their stay in Austin and motivation for involvement in the project. Since I hadn’t seen the film, I listened intently as others asked questions and I snapped pictures. I did discern that the content centered on “undefined” mental illnesses. Sadly, an event on this red carpet – my colleague accidently knocking down a SXSW sign, which caused the film’s promo poster to knock into Keener and garnered chuckles – proved far more entertaining to me than did the film. My friend did not find it amusing, but then she caused the brouhaha in the first place.
Carter’s film takes place primarily inside the home of Catherine (Keener), where she lives with her friend James (Franco) a former soap star dealing with an undefined mental malady. Also living under the same roof is James’ his sister, Patricia (Fallon Goodson), who is the oddest of them all. Patricia wanders around in strange wigs and generally seems absent from reality. To be fair, I felt distracted, far too often, by the unclear time period. James dresses like he lives in the 1950s, Patricia seems to live in the 1960s and Catherine jumps between them. Carter himself claims the film is set in 1963, but offers no real explanation for his anachronisms. Some aspects have a timeless feel, while the black and white TV programming tells of the horrors of the 1978 mass suicide in Jonestown. I spent a great deal of time distracted by the incongruity in time period, which says little for the story itself. And don’t get me started on the infuriating, equally inconsistent voiceover narration – an unsuccessful and irritating attempt to let us into James’ addled head.
Like James and Patricia, Catherine, too, has her quirks. She’s an artist whose work inexplicably pays for the trio to live, but she strangely enough harbors a compulsion to dress as a man and go out in public. While Franco and Keener both do exceptional jobs playing their damaged characters, Fallon (who also co-produced the film) captures the very essence of emotionally disturbed. She fascinated me and I found myself watching her more intently than anything else. David Stratharin, too, thoroughly entertains as Delmar a flamboyant, gay neighbor, quiet obviously smitten with James and just as quirky. In a completely wasted, albeit ironic bit part, Alan Cummings plays a diner patron who is appalled by cross-dressing Catherine, the debauched Delmar, the obviously odd James and pathetically clueless Patricia.
Each time I get a red carpet interview and for every screening I see at SXSW, I hope to love the film, but regardless of the strong cast, I cannot endorse Maladies. The incongruities drove me to distraction (like why James and Patricia come to live with Catherine in the first place) and the ultimately lifeless exercise in exploring insanity bored me. I spent far more time being annoyed than entertained and so I cannot offer more than a D+/C- minus to Carter and crew, although the cast deserves higher.