Brow Beat

James Franco’s Identity Crisis Is Exactly the Same as McDonald’s  

“You’d walk by and snag a fry and pop it in your mouth. So easy.”

Photo by VALERY HACHE/AFP/Getty Images

This morning the Washington Post published an essay by James Franco about McDonald’s. Various sources have called it a love letter to the deteriorating fast-food giant, but that’s not quite accurate. Unsurprisingly, it’s more like a love letter to himself.

Describing McDonald’s new efforts to cut costs and revamp its image, Franco says that he wants the new strategy to work. He then offers various aimless recollections from a season spent working in fast food while trying to break into Hollywood. For the most part, Franco justifies his own McDonald’s experience: “I also put tons of salt on the fries because that’s how I like them,” he says. “When you’re paying a dollar for a burger, is it the end of the world if I accidentally forgot to take the mustard off the order?”

Franco is interested in McDonald’s only as a setting for his own personal drama. He describes trying out different accents on customers, turning his service-industry job into a perpetual audition, with a standard Franco laissez-faire lack of empathy for the world around him. He also mentions being propositioned by the hamburger cooker. Even when he wants to talk about McDonald’s, he ultimately can’t help coming back to his one true subject—James Franco.

Through his eyes, we finally see the corporation beginning to degrade like a burger left too long in the sun. McDonald’s wants to cater to many different customers, to be many things to many people. But that’s why Franco’s reflections on his old employer are weirdly touching, even as they meander and sputter out. At its root, McDonald’s identity crisis looks remarkably like James Franco’s identity crisis.

In the years since he broadened out from competent young actor to writer, director, performance artist, and soap opera star, Franco’s profile has benefited from the bloat (he’s stayed newsworthy) even as he’s become a bit of a punch line. It becomes harder to identify what he really stands for, or what he wants from the public, when he’s exploring so many different avenues at once.

McDonald’s is in the same boat. If people are no longer lovin’ it, if the brand is no longer  an essential slice of a love-it-or-hate-it Americana, then the corporation has a real problem on its hands.  Each Franco and McDonald’s is a force in their own right: it’s almost as hard to imagine the cultural landscape without Franco as it is to envision an America without a Big Mac always around the corner. Both the man and the company inspire a grudging tolerance as we continue to funnel money toward them, year after year. And both are trying pretty desperately to stay relevant. Franco still has the option to write a buzz-worthy op-ed or dip into some wacky new art form; McDonald’s may not have such easy opportunities to recoup its losses. And maybe that’s why the former fast-food worker wants to speak up for his old employer, even if, being James Franco, he can really only speak about himself.