Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share on Google+ Share on Reddit Share on Pinterest Share on Linkedin Share on Tumblr James Franco is a confounding artist. On the one hand, he’s one of the more gifted actors of his generation, as evidenced by his excellent work in 127 Hours and Spring Breakers. He’s also a talented writer, and his book Palo Alto Stories served as source material for Gia Coppola’s debut feature Palo Alto. Other work, while not necessarily “good,” is at least thought provoking, such as Interior. Leather Bar, his re-imagining of what took place in the infamous cut footage from Cruising, and in the recent Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? an is-it-or-isn’t-it Lifetime movie spoof of an older Lifetime movie of the same name. But Franco has also spread himself incredibly thin. He’s appeared in over 50 films in the last five years, an unheard of amount, most of which were forgettable and some of which were just terrible. The Institute, a new horror film that Franco stars in and also co-directed with Pamela Romanowsky (The Adderall Diaries), straddles a thin line between those two distinctions. It’s just bad enough as to not be completely forgettable but forgettable enough that it doesn’t even serve as a “so-bad-it’s-good” guilty indulgence. The Institute follows young Isabel Porter (Allie Gallerani) who, after the death of her parents, is sent by her doctor (Eric Roberts, slumming it) to the Rosewood Institute, an amalgamation of mental hospital clichés that is run by the creepy, bespectacled mad scientist Dr. Cairn (Franco). Isabel and her fellow patients are used and abused by those at Rosewood until the tables are turned in a way obviously inspired by Robin Hardy’s Wicker Man and Ben Wheatley’s Kill List. Despite swerves in the plot, there is very little forward momentum to The Institute, and it feels longer than its relatively short length. If there were artful performances or thoughtful plotting on display, that would perhaps provide a distraction. In their absence, the sluggishness is particularly damning. Franco’s disappointing performance is overshadowed by his disappointing direction (though credit must be given to Romanowsky as well). The hazy filming is presumably supposed to evoke the late-1800s setting of the film, but instead it looks as if someone covered the lens in Vaseline to soften the harsh effect that time has had on the supporting cast, which includes Roberts, Lori Singer and Tim Blake Nelson. And there are no scares to be had in this purported chiller and no chills or pangs of the heart to compensate for their absence. The one bright spot is the overall design of the production. Scott Enge’s production design and David Page’s costume design occasionally achieve the nearly impossible task of distracting from everything going wrong. Though Rosewood is a jumble of overused tropes, it looks suitably gothic, occasionally mysterious and quite atmospheric. And the costumes really do evoke the era and the setting, at least while the characters keep their clothes on. On that note, though the characters do occasionally find themselves in suggestive situations, The Institute is a decidedly unsexy experience from beginning to end. This is surprising, as The Institute’s low budget and poor script make it seem as if its reasons for existing could be of the soft-core adult entertainment variety. But that isn’t the case here. One hopes that James Franco is merely in a phase where he is trying absolutely everything he can, throwing things at the wall to see what sticks. But there is still little justification for his involvement with The Institute, which offers little in the way of entertainment and nothing in the way of innovation. As an actor and filmmaker, his excellent work is now far outnumbered by that which is mediocre, and films like The Institute will only serve to knock his average down even further.