(2017—Director: James Franco)
— by Renard N. Bansale —
(out of 5 stars)
“Even the worst day on a movie set is better than the best day anywhere else.” — Carolyn Minnott (Jacki Weaver) to Greg Sestero (Dave Franco), Juliette Danielle (Ari Graynor), and Philip Haldiman (Josh Hutcherson)
Potential spoilers below
Any cinephile worth their salt will, at some point, drift from the mainstream and encounter the enticing wonders of cult cinema. Reigning in the lower depths of that classification’s quality spectrum lies The Room, written, produced, directed, and starring a most bizarre man by the name of Tommy Wiseau. Considered by many as one of cinema’s all-time worst offerings, it has become a fixture of the midnight movie circuit ever since its 2003 premiere. Removed of the gleeful jeering and bombardment of spoons and footballs towards the screen during public screenings, however, The Room and its nonsensical myriad of aimless subplots become a rather boring affair, further made unbearable by its three extended sex scenes.
Most viewers of bad films such as The Room often do not grasp the lofty dreams and misplaced ambition that fueled such projects. The 2013 non-fiction book The Disaster Artist, co-authored by The Room cast member Greg Sestero and journalist and art critic Tom Bissell, brings its readers deep into the friendship between Wiseau and Sestero that led to the infamous cult classic and how its production tested their brotherly bond. It is only appropriate, then, that an actual brotherly bond in the form of producer-director-star James Franco and his younger brother Dave succeed in bringing that story to life on the big screen. Balancing heart and humor throughout, The Disaster Artist is a worthy contribution to the list of great films about filmmaking.
San Francisco, 1998: 19-year-old Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) meets Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) at an acting class. Both aspiring actors with dreams of success in Hollywood, they strike a friendship despite Wiseau’s eccentric personality, unknown age, and hazy background in contrast to his mysterious abundance of funds. They move into Wiseau’s Los Angeles apartment, but both make little career progress over the next few years. Sestero suggests that they should just produce and act in their own film. This inspires Wiseau to write, produce, and direct The Room, starring himself as “Johnny”. Wiseau convinces Sestero to join the project as an associate producer and later as the character of “Mark”. Wiseau reserves a production house, purchases (rather than rents) all the production equipment, and hires his cast and crew with relative ease. Production starts off well enough and the cast and crew get paid their due salaries. However, Wiseau’s narcissism and demanding behavior soon test the crew’s patience.
And the replacement crew’s patience.
In fact, the whole ordeal may have even cost Wiseau and Sestero their cherished friendship—the very reason for the project’s existence.
James Franco’s performance as Tommy Wiseau dominates The Disaster Artist to an uncanny degree. Landing the weird demeanor of Wiseau could have leaned towards caricature and balancing this task with producing and directing could have proved overwhelming for any filmmaker. Thankfully, Franco’s love for The Room’s making-of story keeps his transformation sympathetic as well as humorous with each awkward chuckle. He receives enormous help from the lucid script by writing partners Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber. Franco will likely garner a Best Actor Oscar nod for his memorable turn, while Neustadter and Weber have a Best Adapted Screenplay mention in their sights.
Beyond those three assured craftsmen and despite the movie’s infectious and bittersweet hilarity, The Disaster Artist does hit a ceiling. The Disaster Artist is the first time the two Franco brothers have acted together on screen. However, compared to James’ committed take on Tommy Wiseau, the naturally-nervous Dave does not mirror the taller, slender, more jock-like Greg Sestero as closely. Dave’s real-life wife Alison Brie as Sestero’s then-girlfriend Amber provides a warm presence, as does co-producer and frequent Franco collaborator Seth Rogen as Sandy Schklair, The Room’s script supervisor and uncredited de facto director. Rogen’s scene where he cashes, with apprehension, his first check from Wiseau and breathes a sigh of relief when it gets cleared is one of The Disaster Artist’s more underrated scenes. Otherwise, the rest of the film’s cast amounts to a basket of welcome cameos and minor roles stepping into the limelight.
I suspect that two elements will keep The Disaster Artist from reaching the lofty tier of Tim Burton’s 1994 film Ed Wood. The first is the rather straightforward look of The Disaster Artist compared to Ed Wood’s monochrome, surreal, and emulative visuals. The second is how removed The Disaster Artist is to the book and to the original film. Ed Wood’s 1994 release arguably sealed the cinema world’s building affection towards Wood’s undying passion in contrast to his low-grade filmography. Tommy Wiseau and The Room, on the other hand, did not have to wait as long, thanks to the internet and Wiseau’s impromptu and ingenious pivoting of “the worst film of all time” into a widely-adored and heavily-quoted mainstay of the midnight cult cinema circuit. As a result, The Disaster Artist’s many shots at The Room’s plethora of flaws can get predictable fast, however funny they remain.
James Franco has admitted in interviews that tackling The Room story without Sestero and Bissell’s non-fiction book would have resulted in a mere spoof. Still, I wonder how much greater an impact The Disaster Artist movie would have made if it had come out within a year or two of the book’s 2013 publication. No art can escape the judgment of time, but I foresee an optimistic legacy for Franco’s passion project despite its somewhat belated release in my view. The Disaster Artist does not strike me as masterpiece, that is true, but it gives me plenty of laughs. It makes me smile and reflect on the power and danger of misguided dreams. It does.
Oh hi, Mark.
(Parental Note: The Disaster Artist has been rated R by the MPAA “for language throughout and for some sexuality/nudity.” It has also been rated 15 by the BBFC for “strong language” and rated A-III (Adults and older adolescents) by the Catholic News Service for containing “recurring rear nudity, brief simulated sexual activity, cohabitation, about a half-dozen uses of profanity, a milder oath, and frequent rough and crude language.”)
P.S. Please be sure to stay after the credits.