Remember how cute James Franco was in Milk when he flirted with Sean Penn, who was portraying the late Harvey Milk? That curly-haired Franco had a ski-bunny's friskiness and his smile was the only bright spot in that tragic film. Well, that Franco is over; he's gone down a different road in movies that trifle with gay experience in not always positive ways like the new I Am Michael.
Franco portrays the real-life Michael Glatze, the former gay activist and writer for XY Magazine, a now defunct gay lifestyle publication that linked two male biological symbols, one with an erect arrow pointing left, as a logo. The film dramatizes Glatze's religious conversion: dropping his longtime boyfriend (Zachary Quinto), attending a Bible college, proselytizing for orthodox Christianity and eventually marrying a woman and starting his own church.
The title I Am Michael is an introduction as well as an affirmation but what Franco plays--prodigiously, it must be admitted--is constant pained, layered with signs of loss fit for the 1950 Biblical epic Quo Vadis? That's because Franco's Michael is never sure which way he's going (his physical and emotional erections oscillate wildly). The actor seems grounded in the way he portrays miserable uncertainty but director-writer Justin Kelly's approach to Glatze's story is all over the place.
Kelly has stated "Much of my work examines the prismatic quality of identity, so when I read Benoit [Denizet-Lewis's New York Times Magazine] article, "My Ex-Gay Friend," I was at once fascinated with Michael's story." The problem is Kelly's prism. It doesn't just refract a rainbow flag we can relate to; it flashes attitude--from the Times' sexual-politics agenda to the snickering of imperious, anti-religious, shade-throwing queens. Kelly's previous film was the Brent Corrigan bio-pic King Cobra which explored the gay porn underworld, including the murder of Bryan Kocis, the porn producer who founded the notorious Cobra Video company. Kelly showed the bad camp taste to treat that atrocity as a comedy which made the film unfunny and despicable.
Flirtation with barely-legal eroticism reappears in I Am Michael when Franco and Quinto begin a menage a trois with a twink (Charlie Carver of TV's Desperate Housewives). Carver's youthfulness looks underdeveloped so that both older men seem desperate to hold on to their youth, looking to find themselves in some boyish ideal. Yet Kelly never connects that effort to Michael's spiritual search, so this film has the same chilling spiritual and erotic lack as King Cobra.
There's no appreciation of what the sexual act means to Michael in either physical or spiritual terms; Kelly stays on his story's surface so that as Michael reads the Gospels, alienates the people around him and deceives himself, all I could think of (while remembering the ugliness of King Cobra) is that Franco has trapped himself. Once again, Franco's unclear and unfathomable insistence on portraying gayness has led him down the path of impersonating creeps. (Franco played the rival porn-producer, boy-exploiter and murderer in King Cobra).
Here, Franco and Kelly's efforts are more serious. They include footage from Glatze's 2003 gay suicide doc Jim in Bold and Franco doesn't condescend when reciting Scripture: "'Be not conformed to this world.' The whole 'You're going to hell' myth was started by mistranslations and interpretations of the Bible. I mean, God doesn't care what your sexual orientation is."
But neither director nor actor ever grasp the profundity of Glatze's passionate search for love and self-acceptance. Their agnosticism reveals their philosophical failure. This film's subject might have been better served by gay Christian filmmaker Mark Theideman (Last Summer).
Kelly's confusion shows when he mistakes the crisis of faith and sexuality for politics. Michael is shown reading both David Kupelian's The Marketing of Evil: How Radicals, Elitists and Pseudo-Experts Sell Us Corruption Disguised as Freedom and Ann Coulter's The Church of Liberalism. Those titles are so fascinating that Kelly seems biased when he simply ignores their arguments. Brian Chu's memoir Does Jesus Really Love Me?: A Gay Christian's Pilgrimage in Search of God in America would complete Michael's reading list.
Even this film's best scene is problematic: Mike sits in a movie theater watching the Jim in Bold doc; he's centered in the audience, under the movie projector's glow just like the kid in Terence Davies' The Long Day Closes. Unlike lapsed Catholic Davies, Kelly doesn't dare touch on spirituality. He sells the gay Christian experience short and that, finally, diminishes Franco's art to cuteness.