This article previously appeared on Crossfader
Director: James Franco
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Liking LA LA LAND feels weird now in the presence of THE DISASTER ARTIST’s own brand of dream-chasing magic. It’s got a real story on its side, certainly, but more importantly, James Franco’s film earns points for its earnest portrayal of failure and imperfection, and the kinds of things it makes people do. To fight against one’s own self-opinion, there’s expression through art. Underneath that, there’s the unfortunate factor of power trips and juggling of inherently fragile egos, desperate only to connect to others through the language that helped them feel real at some point. THE DISASTER ARTIST captures sad truths about being a struggling artist, while only capturing an nth of the nuance and brilliance of the novelized real story and person it’s based on. It’s successful, but mostly with a little distance, like a low-resolution JPEG; clear enough to take in and enjoy for all its content, even though you know that close up it’s a little messy.
If you haven’t seen THE ROOM, then you should probably watch THE ROOM. Known as the “best-worst movie ever made,” it’s become a cult classic to a feverish degree, leading to its spearhead gaining his own cult of personality. The writer, director, producer, and star of THE ROOM is one Tommy Wiseau, a mysterious man of un-discernable age, nationality, and . . . wealth? He’s an eccentric who wears three belts at a time, fancies himself a James Dean-type, and funded a six-million-dollar feature film all by himself, making the most incorrect decisions possible from pre to post. Alongside him is Greg Sestero, co-star of THE ROOM and long time close friend of Wiseau’s. Since rising to fringe popularity, the story behind THE ROOM has been demanded to be told. Several years ago, Sestero co-wrote a book chronicling his friendship with Tommy Wiseau, the making of THE ROOM, and the legacy of it until now. It’s an affecting, fascinating look at Hollywood’s outsiders, dreamers, and immeasurable potential. THE DISASTER ARTIST covers about half of that, but at least does so well . . . mostly.
*Ravioli, ravioli, THE ROOM take number 40*
It’s pretty much consensus at this point that THE DISASTER ARTIST is James Franco’s most successful directorial effort of at least 15 feature films thus far. This isn’t just thanks to having A24 on his side, or even because the source material is so strong: Franco put in some good work to the film . . . as a comedy. This is a consistently funny movie with a lot of elements to pull from outside of the obvious, never completely drying any of its wells. It plays like a peak Christopher Guest film (in more ways than one), balancing tones with unprecedented gravity and je ne sais quoi. Shot by Brandon Trost like a behind-the scenes-documentary mixed with an episode of THE SHIELD, Franco and editor Stacey Schroeder keep the pacing snappy and almost sketch-like, but with a connective tissue. In fact, instinct and knowledge of the book’s specificity almost wishes this were a mini-series, which could have given it more runway to deliver upon its full promise. Alas, the result is still its own kind of good time.
THE DISASTER ARTIST is most accomplished as an ensemble comedy. Seth Rogen, Dave Franco, Zac Efron, Nathan Fielder, Bryan Cranston, Allison Brie, Melanie Griffith, Bob Odenkirk, Josh Hutcherson, Megan Mullally, and all three HOW DID THIS GET MADE? hosts are just the tip of the iceberg. How this movie didn’t end up being a crappy improv-fest is shocking, but a welcome surprise! There’s a precision to the comedic tension thanks to the editing and focus of the performances. You’ve got the earnestly goofy, but ultimately human drive of the aspiring actors such as Josh Hutcherson and Ari Graynor, and the pained frustration of disgruntled crew members like Seth Rogen and Paul Scheer. The latter two execute a Statler and Waldorf routine that exchanges wit with delightfully memorable disdain and anger. Everyone plays the straight man to Franco’s Tommy Wiseau, which prompts them to pull off surreally grounded dramatic performances. While there’s a lot of calling out jokes and criticisms that mega fans of THE ROOM know, they’re organized into a demo-sized document with THE DISASTER ARTIST.
Shame for not casting David Wain as Peter, but Nathan Fielder is his own kind of inspired casting
The easiest thing to notice with this film is how damn good James Franco is as a performer. He went above and beyond the call of duty of at the very least nailing a Tommy Wiseau impression, and actually gave him a level of humanity that Wiseau himself isn’t even willing to reveal. The basic throughline is that of not being good enough for something you desperately want. Tommy wants to be James Dean, but he looks and sounds like a vampire. This is a complex ground for drama, when it comes down to someone’s own inherent abilities up against a set structure that they just seemingly can’t break. Whenever Tommy runs into those walls, resulting in humiliation, Franco lets those moments ring for what they are: tragic. It’s tragic that Tommy can’t get what he wants, no matter how hard he tries. Seeing Franco’s Tommy slowly melt into tears he tries to hide is effective thanks to Franco the actor and Franco the director making way for these moments to actually count, without cheapening the comedy before and after it.
Tips for your first open mic: wear three belts
Where the performance can only go so far is when it gets to Tommy Wiseau’s deeper imperfections. Kudos to Franco for showing Wiseau’s utter childishness as a director, heightened by the lack of chill any of his crew members have for it. At turns, it’s a little difficult to fully root for Tommy as an underdog hero, especially when he’s made so much for himself on his own, painting THE ROOM as at least half a vanity project. This clashes with an even more burdensome notion, in that Tommy is a victim of Hollywood’s many psychological bullying practices. What do you do with the dreams of someone who is considered too much of an outsider, which itself is somewhat cruel? Even simpler, is Franco, a successful Hollywood presence, punching down by doing this film, and by proxy, us for laughing at Tommy? It’s messy and possible to convey all angles as portrayed objectively in the book. But in the end, Franco takes a subjective route for a more fun-sized package. This complicates and throws under the bus any potential nuance necessary to make the dramatic narrative transcend into higher effect.
Jeez, Roger Deakins is not looking so good: GIVE HIM THAT OSCAR!
So THE DISASTER ARTIST’s cinematic adaptation somewhat takes for granted the complication of the situation at hand, and is instead a scattered but undeniably entertaining romp. It can be a little hard looking past what the film misses, but when it hits, it really proves effective. So rarely does an ensemble this big actually pull off upon its promise. It’s fun seeing all these actors partaking in the fun of telling such an astounding and confounding tale. Even more, though it might not be the Tommy Wiseau everybody knows, James Franco’s version is remarkable. Why haven’t we seen this strength from Franco in such a long time? Perhaps it’s because there’s a kinship he’s found with Tommy. Hell, he’s made, like, 15 feature films to very little success or praise, mostly on his own dime and time. This might be the most personal performance we’ll ever see from James Franco, even if it’s steeped in an ethically foggy mask. Seeing him be this emotional, funny, and enthralling alongside his own little brother makes THE DISASTER ARTIST some kind of special home movie, prompting Franco to let down certain guards to resonant results. The exterior is a little shabby, but the interior is so much fun.