Movie Review – The Disaster Artist
Based on the book of the same name, this movie is about the making of Tommy Wiseau’s The Room (2003), a film that has been dubbed the worst movie ever made but has since become a cult classic that’s still shown in theaters for midnight showings to this day. Wiseau is an easy comparison to Ed Wood, an infamous filmmaker who made bad movies. This film therefore is an easy comparison to Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994), the movie about how bad a filmmaker Ed Wood had been. This movie is about how similarly bad a filmmaker Wiseau was. Johnny Depp played Ed Wood and Wiseau wanted Depp to play him in this movie, but that perhaps would have been too on-the-nose.
James Franco (Spider-Man and Milk) instead stars as Tommy Wiseau, a mysterious man who looks like he could be in this late 30’s or early 40’s. Yet, he’s an aspiring actor who doesn’t seem to have much self-awareness. He says he’s from New Orleans, but he has an Eastern European accent that makes it seem impossible that he’s American in any way. He also appears to be independently wealthy with properties in two cities and millions of dollars to throw around. He’s driven by a dream to express himself in acting and possibly be a star. He has the confidence and the boldness to pursue it, but he doesn’t have the talent or the mental wherewithal.
Questions come up about who Tommy really is. We don’t know how old Tommy is. We don’t know where he was born. We don’t know where he got all his wealth. Normally, it would be a negative criticism that these questions are never answered. This movie never reveals who Tommy actually is or his true origins. As such, it leaves Tommy as nothing more than a caricature or a kind of cartoon character that often doesn’t feel real. Yet, it’s not a negative in this movie because not knowing Tommy’s origins is the point. The character works as a foil to the film’s true protagonist.
Dave Franco (Neighbors and 21 Jump Street) co-stars as Greg Sestero, a model and aspiring actor who is only 19 or 20 and taking acting classes in San Francisco, near where he was born. He’s a little shy and has a bit of stage fright. He meets Tommy in his acting class and is impressed with Tommy’s fearlessness. He befriends Tommy to try to learn from him. It’s clever when things turn and Tommy ends up learning more from Greg. Greg, however, does feel a kindred spirit with Tommy for various reasons.
The relationship between Tommy and Greg in turn does become the backbone for this film. The two decide to make a movie together. That movie, though terrible, could possibly provide the context clue to understanding Tommy. This movie makes the tenuous link that The Room might be somewhat autobiographical. One doesn’t have to have seen that movie. The only thing needed and that is conveyed through James Franco’s performance is that Tommy is a lost soul who latches onto Greg who initially can’t see the forest for the trees and who is suckered by Tommy’s passion and eccentricity about acting.
Of course, because The Room is considered a terrible movie, the logical question is why is it terrible and what went wrong that nobody did anything to fix it or nobody stopped it before it was released. In that lies the perils of independent filmmaking and one person having sole creative control with no checks and balances and with no knowledge of filmmaking. It’s not as if nobody realized the train was going off the tracks, but the movie does a good enough job of showing how it would go off the tracks and why nobody would jump off even when they can see the wreck coming.
There does come a point where Greg has to choose actively whether or not to jump off. Tommy basically gives Greg an ultimatum, which is either stay or go. For those watching, the choice to leave is obvious and probably right. Yet, Greg struggles because I think the movie does a good job of establishing the bond between the two. The casting also helps because James Franco and Dave Franco are brothers in real-life and have a strong bond, so the chemistry and love for one another are already there and shine through the screen.
Arguably, Franco’s big break was on the TV series Freaks and Geeks (1999), but he didn’t really make a name for himself until he played the titular role in the TNT movie James Dean (2001), which earned him an Emmy nomination, a SAG nomination and won him a Golden Globe Award. That TNT movie was just as much about the trappings of Hollywood and movie-making, as this one and appropriately Franco nods to James Dean here. In that TNT movie, Franco’s character pursued acting and hoped his success in it would bring him closer to his father. Here, Franco’s character, Tommy Wiseau, pursues acting but in some ways it’s just a front to bring him closer to his friend, Greg Sestero.
James Franco not only stars but he also directs this feature. This isn’t the first feature he’s directed. At this point, he’s probably directed at least ten features and has been directing for a decade or so. For most Hollywood filmmakers, that’s not too long, but this film has to be the best movie he’s helmed thus far. It also is his best performance since 127 Hours (2010), even though I did enjoy him in the TV series 11.22.63. It might also be the funniest Franco has been since Pineapple Express (2008), a role that also required he wear a wig.
Maybe Franco is funnier in a wig. That, I couldn’t say for sure, but, as far as directing, what I was reminded of was a movie Franco made called Interior. Leather Bar. (2014), a movie that blurred the line between documentary and narrative. That movie was also, in a way, about the making of another controversial film, Cruising (1980), a film at the time considered to be a bad movie but now has a bit of a cult classic status. Cruising doesn’t have the technical problems of The Room, which was mainly bad acting and bad direction, but, as this movie proves, that bad acting and direction can be better received if the context is changed.
Interior. Leather Bar. was all about combating homophobia, especially homophobia among and within actors. A lot of which had to do with people’s perceptions of actors and what their roles should be and how that might affect their careers. That same basic idea is somewhat present here. No, this movie isn’t dealing with a big social issue like homophobia. People’s perceptions of Wiseau and what his role should be, either villain or hero, is an aspect here though. The main issue at hand is how far should an artist go, even when his work isn’t working.
The next, logical issue that is brought up at the end here but doesn’t have time to fully address is the idea of how art is received and how it can be ingested in ways the artist might not expect. It would also open up a discussion of why so-called bad movies can be so successful. So many bad movies have been successful, from Fifty Shades of Grey to the Star Wars prequels. It begs the question if there even is such a thing as “bad art” if one can derive some kind of entertainment from it, even if it’s just laughing at it.
Rated R for language throughout and some sexuality / nudity.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 44 mins.
Currently playing in Rehoboth Beach.