James Franco Double Teams the Porn Biz in HBO's 'The Deuce': TooFab Review
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The 14 Most James Franco-y Roles That James Franco Has Ever Played

Ever since James Franco began his quest to create the world's longest and most eclectic LinkedIn profile, there has been an added subtext to his on-screen performances.

It isn't quite irony, because he's most definitely committed to each and every acting job. But he also acts in a lot of movies — IMDb lists 17 of them this year alone — and most of them aren't exactly mainstream wide releases. Some are art films, and more than a few of them are plain weird (or just not good!), and while he's undoubtedly doing them for some kind of reason, it feeds into the (incorrect) perception that he's an eccentric Hollywood weirdo, a celebrity artist with little grasp on reality. His side careers as professor, painter, installation artist, and modestly-reviewed novelist only exacerbates the notion.

Sometimes that helps -- he was incredible as the strangely endearing Miami DJ/drug dealer in "Spring Breakers" -- but it can also be a hindrance. Watching James Franco always comes with a little added scrutiny, as if we're on guard against him putting one over on us plebes who paid $15 to watch James Franco be James Franco. And even when he actually does play James Franco, as he did in Seth Rogen's movies "This Is The End" and "The Night Before," it feels as if he's still being clever.

So when it became clear that he was playing twin brothers in HBO's new drama "The Deuce," and that it would be about the seedy world of '70s porn, the whole thing sounded like it could another Franco quasi-stunt: the kind of earnest-on-paper, winking-on-screen project that would be interesting, yet also a tiny bit insufferable. And yet that defensive assumption ignored the most crucial fact about project: It's the brainchild of David Simon, the hardboiled TV auteur who made "The Wire," arguably the greatest drama in television history.

Simon does not suffer fools, whether they're in the White House (check out his Twitter) or on set. He creates broad canvasses and has a precise vision, weaving complicated and seemingly disparate stories into tight tapestries depicting a morally troubled era in history. So "The Deuce" was built with two fundamental tensions in competition with one another: Simon's discipline and Franco's inherent magnetism.

Luckily, Simon's discipline won out, and that made Franco's performances even better. The brothers Franco represent the two sides of Franco's public personality, and balance one another out. The leading Franco character is Vincent Martino, a bartender busting his ass to support two kids and an unfaithful wife (Zoe Kazan) in Brooklyn. He gets his ass kicked early on during a mugging, putting a bad bruise on his forehead that just so happens to distinguish him from his brother Frankie. The other Martino, a degenerate gambler and hustler, is also played by Franco, who gets to put on his wily charm here in a role that demands it.

As with all Simon projects, including last year's mini-series "Show Me a Hero," the Martino brothers are at the front of a broader ensemble. And there are far wilder characters — after all, this is a story about porn and pimps in '70s New York. Maggie Gyllenhaal, also a producer on the series, plays a prostitute named Eileen, though she goes by Candy, who works independently of any controlling pimp; she's the series' strongest female character, working hard to take care of her parents and young son; she shows a kind of bravery that might not satisfy modern conventional feminist requirements, but represents its own kind of toughness.

Emily Meade is the young buck prostitute, excited to get to work in the miserable Times Square line where the hookers line up in front of porn theaters. Gary Carr is her comedically stylish pimp, while Lawrence Gilliard Jr., who played D’Angelo Barksdale in "The Wire," is one of the few cops we get to know early on.

The hook is that the Martino brothers build a porn empire, but it's not exactly sexy. This is a grimy business in a grimy city in a grimy time in American history, and the nudity feels equally grimy. The characters are desperate and tough, wise-cracking and vulnerable, and they really nail the exhausted look of the era's hollowed out New York. Maybe it's not as sociologically important as "The Wire," but it's a closer look at a time most people in New York and America want to forget. And for Franco, it's a dream, the opportunity to stretch himself as an actor without accidentally hijacking the show with his mere presence and good intentions.

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