The Disaster Artist
I saw The Room once. I did not enjoy the experience. The cult status it has, born from being embraced by the celebrity/alternative comedy scene in LA as a joke of a terrible movie, never really made sense to me. It was just a nonsensical movie with a bad lead performance and bad production value. Movies like this come and go, but Tommy Wiseau was enough of a weirdo that it started to catch on as a midnight movie staple. The concept of movies that are so bad it’s good isn’t something I’ve ever particularly ascribed to, but the cult of The Room always, at least from my outsider’s perspective, felt more than a little mean-spirited. It was like talking about someone behind his back. And I get that Wiseau has claimed the film a comedy and that it’s intentionally bad in order to save face, but anyone who’s seen the movie knows that’s not true.
Wiseau’s friend and co-star, Greg Sestero, wrote a tell-all about the experience of creating The Room from his perspective. That book, The Disaster Artist, has now become a film, directed by and starring James Franco as Wiseau and his younger brother Dave as Sestero. As the book was written from Sestero’s perspective, the film is very much so as well, meaning that though James and his performance will be the biggest thing coming out of this movie, Dave’s really the main character. It’s an interesting dichotomy, one that plays on Wiseau’s publicly guarded persona, as no one could know enough about him to even imagine what goes on in his brain behind closed doors, free from the spotlight and the need to impress his friends, staff and acquaintances. What follows is essentially a biopic of a sort, as Greg is taken by Tommy’s lack of tact and utter fearlessness in an acting class, following him to LA and working with him to create The Room when it becomes clear the Hollywood system won’t have him. The cast is full of the sort of people you might expect, from producer Seth Rogen playing the film’s script supervisor and de facto secret director, Paul Scheer as the DP and Alison Brie as Greg’s romantic partner, with the likes of Jason Mantzoukas, Josh Hutcherson, Zac Efron and Zoey Deutch (among many, many others) filling out the world and this version of The Room’s cast. It’s Wiseau’s world and everyone has a part, even as it becomes clear what they’re making isn’t exactly a masterpiece.
For those who don't have any emotional connection to The Room, The Disaster Artist is little more than an oddity. It's founded on an impressively committed physical performance from Franco, a case of extreme parroting that makes every sentence he utters a potential laugh line just for the pure mangled confusion of it all. The hair, the over-preponderance of belts and chains and key rings and all the other accouterments that makes Tommy Wiseau who he is looks on the face of it like a Saturday Night Live impression writ large, but Franco deserves a lot of credit in not letting it end there. Sure, he’s a space alien, but a space alien with enough shades of meaning to feel like a space alien that’s more of a character than a simple misguided impression of human speech. You can see the wounds in the core of him, the desire for affection that pushes him to keep going, the secrecy he hides behind. That’s what I was hoping to get out of The Disaster Artist. And it’s there, but not as much as I wanted.
The divided line of this movie seems pretty easy to identify. You either see it as a rumination on art and the creative process through the prism of this kook who makes a bad movie, but at least he still makes something, or you can look at it as a flight of fancy where a bunch of famous people do a shot-for-shot parody of a bad movie and throw in some window dressing to make it seem like a fully fledged movie. It seems easier to latch onto the former if you have an attachment to The Room, as the sequences in the middle of the film where Franco and crew recreate the film have a lot more cache. To me, it felt like an in-joke that I recognized, but wasn’t a part of. It’s too predicated on knowing the subject matter and what’s being parodied to stand on its own without that knowledge. It’s a companion piece.
I guess I hoped there would be more to this beyond the loving homage and parody of recreating scenes from The Room with Franco’s famous friends. The script, from the team of Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (The Spectacular Now, The Fault in Our Stars), hints at it. There’s some digging into the psyche of Wiseau, his shadowy backstory and his unwavering desire to be accepted and respected by Hollywood. But that doesn’t amount to much more than the margins; the chief take-away is the fun they all had remaking this bad movie. That’s hammered home at the end of the film, which consists of split-screen comparisons of the original scenes from The Room next to the recreations from The Disaster Artist. It all seems a little too self-congratulatory in the way it was presented, and to me that makes the focus of the movie all wrong. With Franco’s performance, accurate as it may be, the movie feels more like a freak show than a look at the creative process. The extent to which they go for it is certainly admirable, and Franco clearly had a ball bringing this carnival to life. But so much of the middle of the film rang hollow to me that I wish there had been more to it. It clings a little bit too much to the lowest common denominator to create its own identity.