WHAT IT’S ABOUT What a gadfly, this guy, James Franco. When he isn’t busy cutting off his arm (Oscar-nominated for “127 Hours”), hosting the apocalypse (big-screen laugher “This Is the End”), trying to alter history (Hulu’s recent “11.22.63”), or making performance art out of serial killing (his nutty “General Hospital” flyby), the peripatetic actor-filmmaker can be found satirizing pop culture online (his AOL mashup series “Making a Scene”; who could forget “Seinfeld M.D.”?), publishing poetry (“Directing Herbert White”), or going back to school at NYU.
He’s all over the place. And so is his new Lifetime TV flick.
Back in the medium where he found fame — in NBC’s savvy 1999 “Freaks and Geeks” portrait of high school hell — Franco is now conceiving, directing and acting in “Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?” If that sounds familiar, a TV movie by that title aired on NBC in 1996 during the broadcast networks’ craze for women-in-jeopardy flicks (now known as “Lifetime movies”). It’s less recalled for its content than for that kick-me title and its mock-bait star, Tori Spelling (in her “Beverly Hills 90210” days), playing a college student whose lethally obsessed suitor (Ivan Sergei) is rightly mistrusted by her mom.
Franco’s new version — oh, no, it’s not a remake — has Spelling now playing that mom. This time, her daughter (Leila George) is involved with another girl (Emily Meade). She happens to be a vampire, with a “Heathers”-type vampire gang urging her on, while the daughter acts the title role in a campus production of “Macbeth” (Franco plays the director), as mom Tori stages the local country club Halloween bash.
Yes, it’s as busy as Franco himself. And it’s further stuffed with lingerie photo shoots, moody music montages, and girl-on-girl affection. Not to mention blood-drenched body chomping, eye-gouging and head-bashing-in.
MY SAY There’s a difference between taking note of myriad pop culture tropes and actually distilling them into something itself of note. Franco’s “Mother, May I” is all over the map, randomly staging lurid scenes to show how observant it is. Some lines of dialogue echo touchstones from the ’96 original. That flick’s perfunctory professorial discussion of Poe and Henry James gets updated to “Twilight” and Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market.” Oooh, sexual symbolism!
And skin! Gore! We’re on cable! Let’s have fun! If only. The movie is much ado about nothing, feeling desperately thin and pointless. At first promising campy fun, it’s soon simply mystifying, then misguided, gross and finally tiresome in its look-at-me-ness.
At least NBC’s cheesy original took itself so seriously that it became its own parody. See for yourself when the ’96 film runs Friday night at 8 or midnight (on LMN) or Saturday at noon (on Lifetime).
BOTTOM LINE This new version looks like Franco moved on to something else long before he finished it.