The two latest James Franco movies, “Spring Breakers” and “Oz the Great and Powerful,” were released within weeks of each other, and could not appear to be more different. In “Spring Breakers,” sex, drugs and violence abound in pursuit of the “American dream” — embodied, in this case, by a killer spring break. “Oz,” on the other hand, is a 3D Disney wonderland with scenery stronger than its plot. Neither film is a great success, but each has its merits, and it’s quite magical to watch them back-to-back and see Franco transform from a greasy wannabe gangster into a dapper wannabe wizard.
“Spring Breakers” is directed by Harmony Korine and stars good girls gone bad Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, Selena Gomez and Rachel Korine (the director’s wife) alongside a gangster Franco. Candy (Hudgens), Brit (Benson), Cotty (Korine) and Faith (Gomez) are tired of their monotonous college lives and believe that going on spring break in Miami will change their lives and solve all of their problems — but they don’t have the money for it. Good girl Faith turns to prayer for help, but the other three girls do not follow suit; instead, they don ski masks, steal a professor’s car, rob a local diner using squirt guns and proceed to set the professor’s car on fire. So begins the often unbelievable and always raunchy horror/comedy art film that is “Spring Breakers.”
Looped shots of scantily-clad, gyrating teenage bodies soaked in beer serve as interludes from this point on, and give the film a sense of impulsiveness. Hazy, psychedelically blurred flashbacks and flash-forwards permeate the film and bits of dialogue are often played on a continuous loop in the background for minutes on end. The girls’ performances pale in comparison to Franco’s, as they are typically generic and expectedly plastic, with their only novelty being Hudgens and Gomez’s Disney pasts. Franco’s performance as rapper and gangster Alien shines throughout the film and is the only performance that is able to stand its ground in the face of Korine’s aesthetic manipulations. His constant monologues are outrageous, hilarious and eerie all at once, the most memorable one being a spin on the shirt scene in “The Great Gatsby;” “Look at all my shee-it!,” he exclaims, in awe of himself and his various assault weapons, colognes and shorts. “This is the American dream,” he says definitively. “Spring Breakers” seems to be in a constant war with itself, as it walks a fine line between pure idiocy and artful genius. Is Korine trying to make a point with this film or is he just trying to have fun? There is no obvious answer, and the result is confused laughter and involuntary shivers on the part of the audience.
“Oz the Great and Powerful,” a prequel to the classic “The Wizard of Oz” directed by Sam Raimi, is wildly different from “Spring Breakers” in terms of both its plot and its execution; at first glance, it would seem that the only thing the two films have in common is Franco’s presence at front and center. “Oz” focuses on the journey of “wizard” Oscar Diggs, (“Oz” for short), a circus magician who wants to be something more than just a fraud but doesn’t try very hard not to be. He has monumental aspirations for himself, but doesn’t do much to make them come true. True to the form of the original, he is soon whisked away from a black-and-white Kansas into the brightly colored and magical Land of Oz by way of a tornado. This is a tale weakly laced with moral lessons about the importance of honesty and believing in oneself. This weak and cliché plot is almost completely muted by the constant onslaught of green screen and 3D effects. The images are absolutely stunning, to be sure; they are so beautiful that they never become tiresome, but it is quickly made clear that the visual effects are the focus of the film, rather than the action that is being carried out in front of them. There doesn’t seem to be any real effort made towards meaningful, engaging storytelling; the most exciting plot points come with a few suspenseful but Disney-esque twists and turns.
This failure of the plot to make any real, decisive impression on the audience is where both films come short. “Spring Breakers” is too often a confused, pulsating mess of violence and partying, and “Oz” is wholly unconvincing. Both films fall prey to their focus on aesthetics; there isn’t enough of a balance with the plot. In “Spring Breakers,” however, Franco’s performance is able to shine through the haze, whereas his performance in “Oz” is nowhere near strong enough to break through the blinding 3D Disney technicolor. Perhaps Alien is simply more Franco’s ‘type,’ than Oz, but it seems clear that no one (Johnny Depp and Robert Downey Jr. both reportedly turned down the role of Oz) would have been able to break through the Disney formula of colors, cheesiness and 3D. Incredibly different on the surface, both Franco films teach a similar lesson about the importance of balance in film-making.