Directed by and starring James Franco, The Disaster Artist is a love letter to awful 2003 cult film The Room — written in earnest by a filmmaker who prefers to make highly personal artistic statements, rather than those of a commercial or even practical bent.
This wonderfully funny comedy and occasionally moving drama is an impressive achievement that simultaneously exists as commentary on the auteur theory of filmmaking, and shallow emotion, as in simply laughing with and at what many regard as an awful, terrible, very bad film and those responsible for it.
Why The Disaster Artist works so well is that it doesn't judge our reactions to it; the film is not in the slightest ironic or, as is fashionable these days, meta.
Rather than mocking The Room, The Disaster Artist wishes to understand this unintentional comedy, if not appreciate it, while fully acknowledging the film's many, many substantial flaws.
Likewise, to appreciate and understand The Disaster Artist requires an awareness of The Room and the creative force responsible for it, Tommy Wiseau, an odd-mannered outsider looking for a way inside.
Directed by James Franco. Screenplay by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber. An A24 release playing at Franklin Park. Rated R for language, some sexuality, and nudity. Running time: 103 minutes.
Critic's rating: ★★★★
Cast: James Franco, Dave Franco, and Seth Rogen.
He has long, dyed-black hair to conceal his age, a stubborn Euro accent — though he maintains he is from New Orleans — and a slight speech impediment that, along with his decision-making abilities, may or may not be the result of a serious car accident. Yet Wiseau’s boundless self-confidence is impervious to criticism and harsh reality.
He’s a real-life person who would be too bizarre to be imagined by a writer, and as such is the perfect role for Franco as an artist who has pushed boundaries himself. (For example: Interior. Leather Bar, a documentary he co-directed that imagines and recreates the 40 minutes of lost footage from Al Pacino's controversial 1980 drama Cruising, about a serial killer targeting gay men.)
Franco is so deep into character as Wiseau, it would be unsettling were it not so wild and humorous with the accent, the posture, the look, and the childlike ineptitude. It is a truly career-defining performance.
Why Wiseau succeeds is not through tenacity or even luck, it’s his “bottomless pit” of a bank account. He owns homes in San Francisco and Los Angeles, drives a Mercedes, and will ultimately finance this multimillion-dollar film himself, while never so much as making a call to an office. Wiseau’s mysterious fortune, like its owner, simply exists.
And then Greg Sestero, a handsome wannabe actor who may or may not have slightly better thespian skills than Wiseau, drops into his life.
Sestero is played by Dave Franco, James’ younger brother, in a more practical and less method performance that’s effective and necessary to balance the elder Franco’s intensity.
Wiseau and Sestero meet at an acting class, where both are derided by the instructor (played by Melanie Griffith, one of many celebrities with bit parts in the movie).
Sestero is drawn to Wiseau for his ability to shut out critics — and the world, for that matter. In Sestero, Wiseau finds a creative ally and muse, and, as the film strongly suggests, a best friend he wishes were something more.
When their dreams to make it big in Hollywood after they leave San Francisco don't go come to fruition, Wiseau decides to make it happen for them: He writes a script, hires a production team, and buys the equipment outright, and casts the movie, of which he directs and stars. The film is about a successful banker, the film’s tragic hero, Johnny (Wiseau), whose fiancée Lisa (Ari Graynor playing the The Room actress Juliette Danielle) is sleeping with Johnny’s best friend, Mark (Sestero). What happens after that doesn’t matter — to the filmmakers or to the audience.
What you need to know is that the acting in The Room is adult-film level quality bad; many of the scenes end in a similar manner too, with the actors writhing in bed. The Disaster Artist recreates this badness in glorious ways. Josh Hutcherson, for example, plays a young actor named Philip Haldiman, whose character in The Room, Denny, has a habit of making random appearances, much like a pimple, that have no connection to what’s happening in the story or even as part of a subplot. Like Wiseau and his money, Denny exists to exist.
The Room is Wiseau’s child, and includes all of his flaws: disjointed, often incoherent, with dialogue that has no connection or a logical thread.
It’s only by the skill of The Room's experienced crew (played amusingly straight by Seth Rogen and Paul Scheer, among others) that there’s a “movie” in this project at all. Indeed, what separates The Room from so many other equally bad, if not worse, films is its production, estimated but never verified to be $6 million. The Room is like a posh hotel room after an all-night college kegger: trashed but salvageable. (The Room can be watched on YouTube and probably should be to truly appreciate The Disaster Artist.)
The Disaster Artist concludes with a splashy Hollywood premiere for The Room, paid for by Wiseau, where the insipid drama is roundly laughed at and interpreted as a comedy, much to the crushing disappointment of its creator.
It’s the earnestness of The Room — Wiseau and Sestero truly wanted to make a great movie — that has given it a perverse second life as something other than wretched but a wonderfully bad movie, which they have come to embrace through the years.
In fact, Sestero, along with writer Tom Bissell, wrote the best-selling book The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made, which is the template for the script by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber.
Sestero and Wiseau also have tiny parts in The Disaster Artist, proving they are in on this — not as a joke, but as part of Franco’s celebration of their artistry of awful.
Contact Kirk Baird at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.
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