The art is in the disaster with The Disaster Artist


The Disaster Artist is a slick biopic that tries to both lampoon and celebrate its source material but feels too inside to be accessible.

There’s a moment in James Franco’s biopic The Disaster Artist where director Judd Apatow loudly tells Franco’s Tommy Wiseau “Just because you want it doesn’t mean it’s gonna happen.” That’s never stopped anyone from trying in Hollywood, and there’s no doubt the real Tommy Wiseau refused to listen to that same advice, turning his folly The Room into a cult classic beloved by millions. This could also be utilized to explain a tepid reaction to The Disaster Artist itself.

Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) is an aspiring actor. In an acting class he meets the bizarre Tommy Wiseau (James Franco), a man whose past is as shady as his accent is thick. The two fall into a deep friendship and move to Los Angeles, determined to achieve their dream of becoming legendary performers. Hollywood fails to take them, so Tommy takes it upon himself to create his own movie, a melodrama called The Room.

It’s hard to say whether it’s imperative audiences know about Wiseau’s The Room or not in order to enjoy The Disaster Artist. Half the fun involves the character on-screen recreating scenes from the film, and the closing credits play actual sequences from The Room side-by-side with Disaster Artist reinterpretations. But the concept of “how did this get made” works best if you’ve enjoyed, however you interpret that word, Wiseau’s feature.

Starting in 1998, the audience meets their surrogate, Dave Franco’s Greg. Considering Sestero wrote the book on which this is based it’s unsurprising that he’s presented as the ideal male who never does anything wrong (the film doesn’t acknowledge the fact that Sestero replaced the actor who was originally playing his part in The Room). Franco crafts his first character without relying on slapstick humor or his goofy grin. Greg is ambitious but woefully naive, willing to jump into a car with a strange man simply because they’re friends. His mother, wonderfully played in a single scene by Megan Mullally, gives us our first inclination that Wiseau has secrets.

Wiseau and Sestero’s relationship is presented as either a male take on Single White Female or an unreciprocated gay romance. Wiseau’s loneliness is evident; he baldly admits he never went to Los Angeles to become an actor because “I never had a friend to do it with.” James Franco’s performance perfectly demonstrates why someone would take a chance on Wiseau; he’s challenging, defiant, spontaneous. He forces Greg to come out of his shell, yet has no problem  hopping in his car and driving to visit the James Dean crash site. He’s unpredictable and Franco makes that compelling, for good and ill. Mimicking Wiseau’s Eastern European vocal cadences, sporting a drooped eyelid and a mouth constantly half-open, James Franco absorbs Wiseau into his core. It’s a performance on par with Jim Carrey’s Andy Kaufman.

Regardless of Franco’s performance it’s unclear how we’re meant to perceive Wiseau. Opening interviews with the likes of Kristen Bell, Kevin Smith and J.J. Abrams credit him as an “auteur” but there’s never a full awareness of whether these sentiments are facetious or not. Laughter is evoked from Wiseau’s paranoia and inability to understand the basic tenets of acting, yet later scenes showcase his manipulation and downright abuse of his actors, particularly actresses Juliette Danielle and Carolyn Minnott (played by Ari Graynor and Jacki Weaver, respectively). These moments, described in a serious tone in Sestero’s book, are played for comedy, with Greg and the other male members of the crew coming to the aid of these presumably defenseless women. If Franco’s intention is to show us Wiseau as an antihero, it’s a hard-fought battle with us laughing and being reviled by him at every turn.

Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber’s script blends the making of The Room with an attempt to uncover the “real” Wiseau. When the story is focused on the making of the “disaster” that is The Room and its aftermath, things click into place. It’s hilarious watching the near-meta moments when the actors bring up issues with the story — Carolyn’s questioning of why her breast cancer “doesn’t come back” into the story is particularly delightful since Weaver plays it so sweetly. But when the narrative turns to Wiseau, there’s a hesitancy. Despite repeated claims from others that he’s a “villain,” Tommy’s issues are swept under the rug, whether it’s the aforementioned abuse of his actresses or his jealous possession of Greg.

The script also can’t stay away from narrative coincidences, whether they are or not. Case in point is the belief that The Room was written by Wiseau as a response to Greg’s new relationship with a bartender named Amber (a pointless role for Alison Brie). There’s no telling whether this is true or not, and the art imitating life cliché would work if there wasn’t a moment where an actress working on The Room breaks this down for the audience as if the initial metaphor was unclear. And for all the postulating the script does regarding Wiseau and Sestero’s relationship, and Wiseau’s sexuality, it ends up being a source of titillation more than an actual personality trope.

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The Disaster Artist works best when it’s focused on charting the making-of its source material. Unlike its bosom buddy, Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, it might be too niche a subject to resonate with mass audiences but it’s evident Franco and crew are having a whale of a time. In fact, the desire to make a movie with your friends — evidenced by Franco and his cast of buddies — ties into The Disaster Artist better than any of its other hamfisted “connections.” Whether you’re a fan of The Room or not, you should make a point of seeing The Disaster Artist. Just don’t expect it to be a film that’s as infamous (or memorable) as its progenitor.