‘The Disaster Artist’ Is an Awesome Movie About a Terrible Movie
I interviewed Tommy Wiseau once. I was walking the floor of San Diego Comic-Con with a camera crew and we stumbled on Wiseau hawking underwear. If you’ve seen The Room, Wiseau’s epically weird and hilariously terrible cult classic, you know his strange vocal inflections and curious, unplaceable accent. In conversation, he sounds even stranger. Listening to him assemble mangled, incomprehensible sentences in real-time, I felt like I was talking to an alien — and not the kind from another country. It genuinely would not surprise me if Tommy Wiseau was an alien. Just look at The Room. If a creature from another planet was given a couple million bucks, some Tennessee Williams plays for reference, and told to make a movie, wouldn’t it look like The Room?
Given his surreal speech patterns, his laughably cruddy movie, and his shameless flair for self-promotion, it would be very easy to make a movie about Tommy Wiseau that treats him like a punchline. It’s much trickier to do what James Franco has done in The Disaster Artist, which is to take him seriously as a filmmaker, and to find the soul beneath the kooky surface. Franco’s performance as Tommy Wiseau is a thing of beauty. Without ever inflating Tommy’s achievements or his talents, and while still having a great deal of fun with his peculiar behavior, he makes him into what he always wanted to be: A true cinematic hero.
Franco’s Tommy is introduced in acting class, hurling folding chairs around the room while screaming “Stella!” like Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire. His go-for-broke technique catches the eye of fellow student Greg Sestero (Dave Franco), a shy model with the good looks of a Hollywood actor, but not the confidence. Greg envies Tommy's fearlessness. Tommy envies Greg’s handsome features and youth (even if he constantly insists he’s Greg’s age, a claim that’s about as plausible as his assertion that he’s originally from New Orleans). The two aspiring actors become fast friends, make a pinky-swear pact to always support each other, and head to Los Angeles to follow their dreams.
Acting coaches tell Tommy he has the look of a monster. He could be a great Dracula. He sees himself as a romantic leading man. Fed up with rejection, he decides to make a movie on his own, one where he can be the star and romance the girl and hump her belly button and toss around a football in an alley while wearing a tuxedo for no reason. With a mysterious supply of near-limitless funds, Tommy assembles a ... what's the opposite of a crack team? That’s what he assembles. They are not very good, and they make a movie that is much, much worse.
To Franco’s credit, he never tries to argue for The Room as some secret masterpiece, or for Tommy Wiseau as some kind of avant-garde visionary. Working from a screenplay by Michael H. Weber and Scott Neustadter, based on the terrific book about the making of The Room by Sestero and Tom Bissell, Franco and his team recreate The Room and its production with shocking precision, basking in the sublime lunacy of this film and its bizarre origins. The Disaster Artist has a lot of fun with The Room, playing with its most baffling moments and inexplicable creative decisions (like Wiseau’s choice to shoot an alley scene on a poorly constructed set, instead of in an actual alley about 50 feet away).
Franco’s only major misstep was in stunt-casting The Disaster Artist to within an inch of its life. Practically every scene features a new funny person in a random tiny role. It’s sort of cute to see A-list stars replace some of the worst actors in history as the cast of The Room. But a lot of the cameoing comics don’t have anything funny to do, and eventually they become a flashy distraction. Sometimes the parade of famous people starts to make The Disaster Artist look like a big-budget Funny or Die video.
What elevates the film above that kind of kitsch is Franco’s performance. He didn’t approach this movie, or this part, as an exercise in camp. Franco, a prolific, oddball filmmaker in his own right, views Wiseau as a kind of a kindred spirit. Both men seem driven to express themselves, no matter how often people tell them they have bad ideas (or how often those people are correct). Franco has a lot of fun with Tommy’s foibles without ever making him into a joke. (He also captures Tommy’s garbled Oh hai Mark cadence with uncanny accuracy, something that is no small feat.) Most important of all, Franco understands that part of The Room’s appeal is that while it may not be good, it is certainly pure — as pure as anything a Brando-obsessed dude from Romania (or possibly Mars) has ever created.
-Generally, The Disaster Artist looks really good. But Dave Franco’s Greg Sestero beard is bad. Like, The Room bad. What happened there?
-There are a lot of recreated scenes from The Room in The Disaster Artist; the closing credits feature a side-by-side comparison that shows just how carefully Franco and his crew (including cinematographer Brandon Trost, who’s almost too good at mimicking the look of garbage cinema) recreated Wiseau’s film. It would have been amazing if they had reshot all of The Room, and then released their version of it as a Blu-ray extra. Dare I dream?