James Franco did it. He found the role he was born to play. It’s not a role that just fell into his lap, either. Franco crafted the opportunity for himself. He optioned the rights for a book through his buddy Seth Rogan’s production company, Point Grey, and then signed on to direct himself as the lead. That’s rather poetic, considering the history behind his role of a lifetime.
Franco is playing real-life director/writer/producer/star Tommy Wiseau in the story of what is arguably the worst movie ever made, the ironically celebrated cult hit The Room. One of that movie’s stars, Greg Sestero, wrote a tell-all book, The Disaster Artist, about his experiences making The Room with his friend Wiseau. Franco read the book and became fascinated with the director. Here was a man who refused to let any obstacle get in the way of his dream. He’s a mercurial figure with a mysterious eastern European accent – whenever he’s asked where he’s from, he’ll only say New Orleans – and an even more mysterious bottomless pit of money. While it might not seem it, upon reflection, Franco and Wiseau have more in common than you might think.
Both men share the conviction that they’ll only confront the world on their own terms. Because of that, Franco has had a unique career path. He only does the things that interest him, like studying various subjects at numerous universities between acting gigs, or taking a break from a white-hot Hollywood career to guest star on the day-time soap opera General Hospital.
Franco has done his share of dramatic roles – highlights include Aron Ralston in 127 Hours and Scott Smith in Milk – but his main focus is comedy. With The Disaster Artist, he and his collaborators have made one of the funniest movies of the year. This is the story about the making of a movie so bad, the only way it could ever become a hit was if people laughed at it.
Franco perfected the look and sound of his subject to hilarious effect. The wild shock of pitch-black hair, the outlandish accent, and the otherworldly acting style all culminate to give us a character study of a seemingly impenetrable character. Wiseau’s closest friends would probably describe the man as hard to really know, but Franco gets to the heart of what gives him purpose: his unwavering passion and vision.
As director of The Disaster Artist, Franco pays slavish (and hilarious) devotion to that passion and vision. In an end-credits sequence, we are treated to a side by side comparison of the most notorious scenes from The Room and their re-creation for The Disaster Artist. Each one is pitch perfect, and a testament to the cast and crew’s meticulous staging of these moments.
As good as those re-creations are, they almost work to the detriment of the movie. It’s as if the filmmakers were a little too obsessed with getting those reenactments just right. This is a comedy, and a brilliantly executed one at that. Without a doubt, though, Franco and the screenwriters, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, had some dramatic aspirations on their minds as well. Some of those moments are successful, others are not.
James Franco’s brother, Dave, plays Greg Sestero in the movie, and there is a subplot about Greg falling in love that feels tacked on and unnecessary. Dave Franco’s wife, Alison Brie, plays the love interest, Amber. Brie, a phenomenal actress, is given little to do here, and her character only serves to move the story, and some of the conflict, forward. The arc feels very rote – a variation on the Yoko Ono myth – that becomes dramatically inert by its conclusion.
While that particular subplot is a misfire, Amber’s presence does lead to a moment of genuine drama and anguish for Greg. He sports a beard for his role in The Room, and he and Amber run into a popular TV actor (I won’t spoil the cameo here) whom Amber knows personally. Greg tells the man he admires his work, and that he is also an actor, albeit a struggling one.
The man tells Greg he is directing an upcoming episode of the TV show in which he stars, and he needs to cast a lumber jack type character. He mentions Greg’s beard, and how perfect he would be for the role. When Greg asks Wiseau for a few days off, the director becomes vindictive, and refuses to move back the shooting of the scene in The Room when Greg’s character, Mark, shaves off his beard. The only reason Wiseau and Greg decided to make their own movie was because no one in Hollywood would cast them. Greg sees the offer of a small TV role as a chance for his career to take off, and Wiseau’s betrayal is devastating to him. Both Franco brothers deliver real pathos in this moment that gives weight to the otherwise light-hearted comedy.
The Disaster Artist also mines drama out of an absolutely ridiculous sequence of The Room. That movie is infamous for including four gratuitous sex scenes in the first 30 minutes of its running time. According to The Disaster Artist, Wiseau was adamant that he be completely nude for these scenes, leading to a huge amount of tension and awkwardness on set. The comedy of seeing Franco walking around bare-assed gives way to uneasiness as his character begins belittling the actress in the scene, as well as the rest of the crew. Greg pulls him aside to talk sense into his friend, but Wiseau will have none of it. Hitchcock is famous for mistreating his cast and crew, he tells Greg. He is trying to make something as great as any of Hitchcock’s movies, so everything he is doing is justified.
It’s a potent example of how creative people (almost exclusively men) wield power and ego to destructive ends. It was completely unintentional, but this moment in the picture perfectly coincides with the sickening revelations that continue to rock Hollywood – and now Washington – in the wake of the Weinstein story.
There are also less effective moments in The Disaster Artist that use cliché to tell instead of show the movie’s thesis. Some of the cast are on a lunch break while filming The Room, and they are talking about the movie and acting in general. The actress playing Claudette in the movie-within-a-movie is much older than the rest of the cast. Someone asks her why she puts up with the long commute to and from the set every day. They wonder why she does it when she has a family at home, and doesn’t need to work. She responds by saying she’s an actor, and she only really feels alive when she’s on set. It’s the least subtle moment in the movie.
Maybe that was intentional, though. In The Room, the character Claudette spouts nothing but clichés. In one scene, she rattles off three of them in a row. It’s possible that this monolog in The Disaster Artist is just one more homage to the train-wreck-turned-cult-classic. The Room is a dubious testament to one man’s uncompromising artistic vision. Franco has honored both the creation and the creator with a hilarious and sympathetic account of the madness that spawned it.
Why it got 4 stars:
- The Disaster Artist stumbles a bit in it's more dramatic moments, but damn is this movie funny. You don't have to be familiar with The Room to laugh hard, but it does help.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- I am, sadly, one of the people who missed out on the original The Room phenomenon. I saw a news story a few years after its (two week) theatrical run detailing how it had become a midnight-movie cult hit. I was intrigued, but I never sought it out. I've seen The Room now, after my screening of The Disaster Artist, and I can only say that it's everything you've ever been promised, and more. It really is the Citizen Kane of bad movies, whatever that means.
- Franco's impression of Wiseau's mischievous giggle is priceless.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- It's the day before Thanksgiving as I write this, and frankly, I've been thinking a little too much about turkey and pumpkin pie and a few glorious days of piece and quiet around the house to plan my next review. I doubt I'll get to a movie theater before I need to write again (I try not to spend money on the actual day of Thanksgiving, and who needs the crowds on the weekend after?). I do, however, have a stack of screeners I need to get through before awards season really gets going. Top contenders right now are Jane, the new documentary about Jane Goodall, and The Ballad of Lefty Brown, a western starring Bill Pullman. You'll have to check back next week to find out what I chose!
Close encounters with people who don't know how to act in a movie theater:
- No real bad actors this time around. The crowd was electric. There is almost a contact high type sensation when you are sitting in a room full of people who are all having a really good time with a comedy.