On chat shows, James Franco invariably yawns. His naysayers may argue that such a habit is a sly auto-critique, an unconscious response to his own output. Not at all. The lassitude is merely evidence that the man never sleeps. His filmography, as actor, director, writer and producer, stretches into the dozens. He is a prolific painter and fiction writer. He teaches film at UCLA and is a doctoral candidate in literature at Yale.
To that breathtaking résumé he can now add: Broadway performer, in a surprisingly unengaging revival of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.
As George, an itinerant labourer in the Salinas Valley of central California in the 1930s, Franco looks apt enough. He projects adequately, even if his voice doesn’t quite convey the loneliness of the ranch-hand or the ultimate sadness of the story’s conclusion. More touching is the way Franco’s George fiercely protects the slow-witted Lennie, the gentle giant portrayed here by Chris O’Dowd, whose obsession-laden characterisation recalls that of Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man.
Though both actors are perhaps best loved for comedy – Franco for hilarious turns in Pineapple Express and Spring Breakers, O’Dowd for Bridesmaids and The IT Crowd – each has sufficient skill to convey tough dramatic situations on film. Yet the big moments in this revival – when Lennie’s protectiveness towards living things turns especially deadly, or when George must make an ultimate decision concerning his friend – don’t quite combust.
The let-down is not the fault of the director, Anna D Shapiro, who has staged the proceedings with her customary professionalism and feel for performers. Nor is the physical production, with a rustically detailed, wood-dominated set by Todd Rosenthal, anything less than impressive.
Conveying the intimacy of the men’s bonds is what eludes these talented professionals. I kept wondering how the story would register as a movie, where close-ups could fill in the delicate emotional gaps. On the stage, Of Mice and Men gives off a slightly dated feel. Its signature themes – the loneliness of the migrant worker, the yearning for land of one’s own – have not abated since Steinbeck’s novel was published in 1937 and its Broadway version immediately followed. But the story’s power here feels diminished.