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James Franco: Now What?

Since last night's stumper of an Academy Awards telecast, a lot of pundits have claimed that it was folly to ever choose James Franco as a host, and that producers should have foreseen that Franco's low-energy and smirking detachment would prove a poor fit for the Oscars. They're wrong, and they're forgetting about 2009 — that's the year that Hugh Jackman emceed the ceremony (another unexpected selection), and though he did a terrific job, the night was stolen by a fully committed Franco, who brought the house down when he reprised his Pineapple Express character with Seth Rogen in a funny pretaped bit. To watch that clip now is almost startling: Franco is so high-energy, so loose and winning (he's actually funnier in the skit than the more conventionally comedic Rogen), and even when the two actors eventually come out onstage together, Franco looks fresh and happy to be there in a way he simply wasn't last night. So what happened to him since then — and what happens to him now?

It's fine for a young leading man to want to do things other than acting — hell, it's practically mandatory for the new breed of "intellectual hotties" like Ryan Gosling, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Franco to prove their bona fides by setting up a side career or two — but when you seem that uninterested in being a movie star, it's hard to put the genie back in the bottle. Franco actually managed to set aside his self-reflexive celebrity this past fall with his meaty one-man show in 127 Hours, but he promptly undercut it by agreeing to host the Oscarcast where he knew he'd be nominated, pulling focus from his actual performance as an actor and bringing things back to his now-primary brand of pop performance art. And for what? "If I host the worst Oscar show in the history of the Oscars, like, what do I care, you know what I mean?" he said earlier this month. Okay, but then why accept the gig in the first place?

Hollywood is more forgiving than you might think to actors who indulge in long-term self-satirization: Though Joaquin Phoenix essentially blew up his persona and frittered away his public goodwill in I'm Still Here, as soon as he finally admitted it was all a stunt, big films like Hoover and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter came calling. (One cause for concern, though: He still hasn't picked a new project.) A-list directors will continue to want to work with Franco over the next year, even if the general public has soured on him somewhat since last night's ceremony, and even if his coming ubiquity (in addition to the four other films he has coming out this year, he's got an album due at some point) might exacerbate that backlash.

If Franco wanted to further his image as an intellectual prankster-poet who sees Three's Company and the Academy Awards and thinks, "Same diff, whatever," he probably succeeded last night. However, it's his career as an actor that could use a little TLC in the ceremony's wake. He'll next be seen in Your Highness, which is the perfect extension of his wink-wink persona (though ironically, he's playing the committed Anne Hathaway type to the postmodern, not-even-trying Danny McBride), but after that, he's toplining the big-budget Fox tentpole Rise of the Apes. Now that we've seen Franco take the piss out of his whole leading-man act, can we buy him as a hunky scientist who unwittingly creates super-intelligent talking monkeys, or will it all play as one long Funny or Die sketch?

Hollywood is more forgiving than you might think to actors who indulge in long-term self-satirization: Though Joaquin Phoenix essentially blew up his persona and frittered away his public goodwill in I'm Still Here, as soon as he finally admitted it was all a stunt, big films like Hoover and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter came calling. (One cause for concern, though: He still hasn't picked a new project.) A-list directors will continue to want to work with Franco over the next year, even if the general public has soured on him somewhat since last night's ceremony, and even if his coming ubiquity (in addition to the four other films he has coming out this year, he's got an album due at some point) might exacerbate that backlash.

Still, maybe it's time for Franco to stop playing himself in the public eye, especially when that role is getting a little stale. An eternal college student, Franco's intellectual curiosity and willingness to subvert expectations is commendable, but everyone's gotta graduate sooner or later.

Photo: GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images