Directed by James Franco (2017)
by GD Hoffman
The Disaster Artist is the story of Greg Sestero and Tommy Wiseau, friends who met in a San Francisco acting school, seeking the dream of making it in show business. They move to LA together and start the grind. Not getting anywhere through auditions, Wiseau decides he's going to write, produce and direct his own movie, supposedly based on an unpublished novel he wrote. Sestero agrees to work with him as a producer and play a lead role. It's unclear where the money comes from, but they have a significant budget.
After completing production, Sestero said nobody in the cast expected this melodrama, called The Room, to ever be seen. They were all subsequently shocked to find out that Wiseau somehow obtained a distribution deal for a theatrical release.
Regarded as one of the worst movies of all time, The Room then gained a cult following for some reason, with late-night screenings and enthusiastic audiences interacting with the movie sort of like The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Except that Rocky Horror fans enjoy the camp and cabaret with an enduring soundtrack and a great cast. Rocky Horror was made by talented people who knew they were doing something silly yet surprisingly relevant. The Room is sort of the opposite. It feels kind of like a telenovela that was shot in rural Canada in 1991. It's not especially fun to watch, even as part of an audience that's making fun of it and throwing things around the theater. But it's a thing. An underground phenomenon that could only happen in America.
So, that's how Sestero got a book deal to tell his version of how this all happened, I guess. Released to critical acclaim in 2013, his memoir of the same name served as the basis for The Disaster Artist film adaptation. Seth Rogen's production company got the rights and James Franco attached himself to direct and star as Tommy Wiseau. Wiseau himself was apparently somewhat involved, at least inasmuch as Franco had access to him to create the character based on the legend. And that's not insignificant, as Wiseau seems to be a character in and of himself, with a mysterious backstory filled with as-yet still-unanswered questions (like how he financed the whole project in the first place).
There's your modicum of background lore, derived from the minimal amount of research I was willing to do before screening The Disaster Artist. If you're thinking Ed Wood parallels, stop. Here's why: Edward D. Wood (the man) had a dozen relatively legitimate studio writing credits before he made Plan 9 from Outer Space, and almost as many directing credits. He still gets credits and mentions in modern productions. Tim Burton (director) and Johnny Depp (title character) presented a portrayal of an artist ahead of his time, passionate and professional. It's a loving tribute to a bygone era about a man who loved life and film, possibly despite himself.
The Disaster Artist obviously could not be that for reasons beyond James Franco's inability to possess Johnny Depp's on-screen presence or Tim Burton's creative genius. What Franco does as a director is technically passable, though. Everything is presented clearly and without much cinematic stylizing, which is what you'd expect from an Apatow alum bro comedy. And there's certainly a lot of well-known funny people cast in bit parts – including an absurd set of confessionals as an introduction. I personally believe that's a testament to Franco and Rogen's likability off-screen more than any one of these recognizable people's desires to be associated with The Room, or the story of its conception. In other words, Franco as director, in this case, means mostly surrounding himself with his buddies.
The film's other strengths include the low-hanging fruit of wardrobe and set design, which all match the period 1997-2003 and the details of the original production. Otherwise, it's the Franco/Wiseau show. He captures the vaguely eastern European accent well and seems to embody the enigmatic man behind the wig and makeup. This is the core of the comedy, I guess.
Let me say that it's usually unfair to critique broad comedies by the same standards as serious movies. The Waterboy, for example, does not exist in the same universe as The Notebook. The reason why The Room is considered one of the worst movies ever made is because it takes itself seriously, despite Tommy Wiseau occasionally saying it was meant to be funny, or meant to cause whatever natural reaction viewers have when they see it. But we know that's not true, which is why viewers enjoy making fun of The Room.
This is speculated about near the end of The Disaster Artist, when Franco/Wiseau cries during the premiere because everyone is laughing. He then comes around after a pep talk. And that's when you know The Disaster Artist failed, too. It takes itself too seriously, even though it's telling the story of The Room, which is something that nobody should ever take seriously. To that end, it's never really funny, either. It seems like most of the laughs come from the residual grief caused by The Room, movie geek incompetence (Ed Wood had some purchase here too, I know), and the weirdness that is Tommy Wiseau.
Taken at face value, The Disaster Artist tells a pretty sad and scary story. Greg Sestero, at the age of 19, meets a weirdo in an acting class who seems to have endless financial resources. His name is Tommy Wiseau, and he refuses to reveal his real age (somewhere between 30-50 presumably), where he comes from, or how he got all this money. But he has an apartment in LA (as well as the one in SF) and since they're friends and dreamers, maybe they should move in together and try to make a go of it. Then Tommy displays bizarre jealous rages regarding everything Greg does without him. Notably, a romantic relationship threatens Tommy's role in his life. Concerning.
But we know Tommy is not psychotic. Just passionate. And controlling. And misguided about film. What we never learn is why he's like that or anything about him we don't already know at surface level. As a fictional character, this doesn't really work. Since Tommy Wiseau is a real person, I guess we're supposed to accept that his mysteries are his to keep or reveal how and when he chooses. We respect him because he allows us to make fun of him.
Okay, sure. I just don't really care. It would have been better to create a speculative background story on Tommy - obviously bullshit but entertaining enough to scratch the itch on his origins. That was an opportunity missed.
The Disaster Artist may have its own ineptitudes, but it does get something exactly right. Greg lands a walk-on for Malcolm in the Middle through a social connection (Cranston plays himself), but he's required to keep his beard and take a day off from production on The Room. When he asks for permission from Tommy, Tommy takes it as an assault on their friendship and forces Greg to shave the beard publicly the next day. The audience gasped around me during this scene. I sat there thinking, “They don't have fake beards in Hollywood? He got that part because his girlfriend knew Cranston from Pilates class, not because he already looked like a lumberjack.”
However, as anybody who has ever lived in LA knows, especially if you've tried to get anywhere in the entertainment industry there, part of the journey usually involves making friends with eccentric weirdos who have money. They'll humiliate you and tell you it's for your own good. If you're lucky, you'll come away with a story that's only unique for its details.