01 July 2022

52 for '22: The Sound and the Fury

Movie: The Sound and the Fury (2014)
Method: Tubi

Nope! Nope nope nope nope.

Why Did I watch this?

This has been on my radar for a while, getting to be probably eight or nine years now, from whenever they announced it. Things are dicey these days with James Franco, but remember that glorious time in the early 2010s when him and Seth Rogen were the hottest comedy duo in tinseltown! This was right on the heels of This is the End (2013) and The Interview (2014) and I was a big fan. Franco always had this other weirder artsier side, and while I think he's better at comedy than any of his dramatic efforts (he is so notably bad in the Spider-Man films), the idea of these idiots coming together to put on an adaptation of William Faulkner was always really intriguing to me.

Also, you couldn't find this movie anywhere. Like, I don't think even peak Netflix DVD services had it. I found it for free on Tubi! Yay! But I've always been interested in American literature but loth to actually read it. I guess that makes me the most American of all. So to see this complex and intricate, indelible tale of the American South told in a movie, well that's just perfect. And told by an actor I enjoyed while casting comedy legends in all dramatic roles? That's really intriguing! It's also short. All of these elements would work against the movie, but whatever, it's a really interesting watch.

What Did I know ahead of time?

I knew it had James Franco, Seth Rogen, and Danny McBride. I knew a little bit of the story, like it centered around this Southern Family throughout the 20th Century, although I later learned that the novel was written in 1929, so it's not like it takes place over the whole century. I knew it was a story about a family's declining power in the South, Franco directed, and that it was not rated high, critically appreciated, or culturally significant.

How Was It?

This was so bad. Like, it's real bad. I have so much to get into. First, a necessary disclaimer - I said I was a fan of Franco in the 2000s / early 2010s, and that work is still great (his performance in The Interview is still one of the greatest comedic efforts of all time), BUT let's face facts, this dude was apparently a monster the whole time and problematic doesn't even begin to describe some of his accusations. It's that hard reckoning. Like, him being a horrible human doesn't make his old stuff less funny. But by all accounts he's a terrible human being whose career should be destroyed.

Now that we've got that out of the way, let's talk about how he approached the nuances of playing an adult with a severe yet vague mental disability. There is no other way to put it. Franco goes full retard. He goes full retard HARD. My immediate reaction upon seeing him on screen was just "Oh noooo! That's not good!" He cast himself as Benjy, the youngest of the Compson family, who is developmentally disabled to the point where he can't speak, is shunned by his family, corralled and abused. Franco is not the dude to play this. He has that weird lazy eye, but man, he puts in those buck teeth, hunches over, and just GOES for it, grunts and all. It was straight up Simple Jack man, like, it's rough as hell. Jeez, it might be worse. It reminds me of Borat when he says his son has very funny retardation and tried to bang his sister. That is literally the plot of this movie. How is this possible?

I don't know the solution here - do you hire an actor with a disability? Do you go straight down syndrome? That doesn't seem right to me. I suppose you just kind of avoid making this film in the first place since Benjy is such an important character. But hey, people in that situation and those actors need representation, too! It's a tough call to make that without making fun of someone. Even movies with noble efforts like The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019) get tripped up in this stuff.

Early on there's also a handful of southern black teenager characters that are introduced as very aggressive, speaking and yelling straight into the camera, which is supposed to be from Benjy's perspective. "Oh noooo! That's not good!" Like, are we really showing the black sharecroppers that work on the plantation as negative aggressors? Whoopsie! It's so bad from the get go. If only there were a plot, theme, acting excellence, or directorial nuance here to salvage the cringiest stereotypes to ever be put on screen. The little kid who plays younger Benjy actually does a good job, you can read more into his eyes how he's trying to process a scene than Franco.

But definitely intriguing to watch! Franco's direction is insane. It's like The Tree of Life (2011) but directed by Benjy. The camera floats aimlessly, has a dead focus in characters' eyes and splices past and present constantly. It's supposed to simulate the stream of consciousness nature of the Benjy portion of the source novel, and it largely does that. The Sound and the Fury (1929) is famously dense and difficult to parse through, with many time jumps and different characters. The movie tries to do that, but maybe it's not the best thing for a film to do. See, with a book when you're confused, you can just re-read a passage. I'm not rewinding this movie every five minutes because something doesn't make sense.

I give it some credit for that. It does zero in on the three brothers, although the story is hard to understand. Like when Benjy sees Caddy on the swing and then later sees Miss Quentin. In the book it'd be easier, because you identify her as Miss Quentin. In the movie I'm just like, "Who the fuck is that?" There is no context, and while the one to one transition of story technique is admirable, at some point you need to calibrate for the medium you're now working in.

The most interesting character is probably Caddy, although we never really see her perspective. This is similar to the book, but again, it may have been worthwhile to update and zero in on what she's doing. There is just different context to discuss the one sister in the family all the brothers want to bang when you're watching this film in 2022. It's hard to track who is doing what and why, and I understand that's sort of the point, but I also don't know why that's the point. What are we getting out of that obfuscated form of storytelling? Let's get back to The Tree of Life (2011), which uses the medium of film to simulate a dream, with just long montages, surreal imagery, and evocations of feelings rather than plot. The story isn't even important, it's more how the characters react, what they remember, and where they ended up. In The Sound and the Fury, the story is everything. It's dense with characters and their own motivations, but we don't understand the severe consequences of their actions when it's portrayed as a flitless dream.

Again, I honestly sort of like the direction. I know, I know, just stay with me here. It's really unique, especially in the Benjy section and just full of these captivating shot choices that demonstrate perspective and placement. It's more the editing, voiceover, and writing that junks up this film. Ahna O'Reilly, who plays Caddy is pretty good - I haven't seen her in much else, but she apparently used to date James Franco and appeared in a handful of his films. Logan Marshall-Green pops up and is remarkably effortlessly cool. Everyone else is pretty trash. Except for the kid who plays little Benjy.

In addition to the black characters being fairly stereotypical, the movie also cuts out the entire last section of the book that focused on Dilsey the head house servant. We get that a little bit, like at the end of the Jason section we shift to Dilsey's perspective, but we never get a title card for her, it feels very abrupt, and it ends on Jason yelling at Luster. I know that in the book that section is more third-person omniscient, but it still exists to give the black folk in the book a voice. That doesn't exist in the movie. Yay! How did this come out in 2014 without pushback?

It's almost like it's just totally insignificant. It's such a cultural blip, there was no hype and no one has been interested in this since. It is not remotely a good movie at all, but it deserves to be up there as a terrible cult classic. I guess we don't need to give Franco our money, but I think everyone should watch this to study how much it misses the mark.

And yes, Seth Rogen and Danny McBride are in this, but as really minor roles. They play it relatively straight, though. Rogen is a little goofy, but McBride is an upstanding actor. I honestly don't know what their goal with this was. I think it would have been much better if they 100% leaned into making this film with the entire cast of This is the End but making it actually serious. Were they trying to flex their acting chops to show they could do serious work as well? I mean, imagine if these idiots actually pulled off an incredibly difficult Faulkner adaptation? I think you cast McBride as Jason, maybe like a Jason Schwartzman as Quentin. O'Reilly was a good Caddy, but you could get like Linda Cardellini in there to further the Freaks and Geeks made good connection. I get that Franco was trying to make real art here, but it just falls on its face. You could at least have fun doing it and go for broke with a novel concept.

I'm glad I finally checked this off, and I hate to say it, but it really did make me want to read the book. This is a true anomaly of a film, though, and while it's total dogshit, honestly deserves more of a look than it's gotten for its bizarreness. I think Franco's treatment of women makes that difficult because he's become someone who shouldn't be supported and the more obscure depths of his filmography will surely be forgotten. I wish there was someway we could get around that death of the author but also not support them? Like can't any proceeds just go to his victims? I don't know what the solution is, but I'd like to keep watching funny monsters in things I enjoy but ALSO be vindictive. Where is that line? I don't know, but everyone in Hollywood sucks so we'd better figure it out.

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