It may not be fair for me to review James Franco’s The Disaster Artist. I have seen the basis of the film, The Room, upwards of twenty times, I’ve read the book of the same name thrice, and have met Franco’s character, Tommy Wiseau, at one of the three in-theater screenings I’ve been to, and think he’s one of the nicest individuals I’ve ever met. Hell, I’m often found leading the audience participation at certain times during those screenings. So it would be incredibly difficult for me to put all of that aside to write an unbiased, impartial review. However, I do feel that even if I didn’t know about this film at all, or if I had stood strong against the friends who got me to watch it when I was young and naïve in 2010, I would still be over-the-moon for what Franco has accomplished here. Franco has taken a story about what could be one man’s biggest failure and turned it into a loving ode to the importance of entertainment, the trials and tribulations of Hollywood, and the importance of friendship and brotherhood in overcoming anything.
Ever since childhood, Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) wanted to be an actor. He possesses the look, and he has a bit of talent, but he cannot get past his own fears and insecurities. However, this all changes in 1998 in acting class, when he meets Tommy Wiseau (James Franco). Wiseau is an enigma – he claims to be twenty yet is clearly in his late thirties, he has a seemingly endless supply of cash that has no original source, he has a heavy-Polish accent despite claiming to be from New Orleans, his body language and vocal tics seem like he doesn’t understand basic human behavior, and his acting is over-the-top, completely lethargic, and impossible to look away from, all at the same time. Greg is fascinated by Tommy’s behavior and reaches out to him, resulting in a years-long friendship built upon the dream of becoming famous actors. When it becomes clear that the dream won’t happen for them, Tommy comes up with an idea: a film of their own, titled The Room. And so begins the saga of the greatest bad movie ever made.
The main threads running through The Disaster Artist are fun and love. This is pretty much made clear from the film’s opening, a documentary-style video interviewing several celebrities who explain that Wiseau’s masterpiece is one of their favorite films, including Kristen Bell, Adam Scott, Keegan-Michael Key, Lizzy Caplan, and, um, J.J. Abrams. That’s a pretty wide swath of different celebrities, all sharing one unique love for this one particular film, and bringing them all together to celebrate in it. The idea is also pretty clear in the ending, where the actors that Franco has cast spend at least five minutes lovingly recreating our favorite scenes from the film, and I do mean lovingly; at times, it’s almost shot-for-shot. However, the theme also runs throughout the movie as a way of bringing characters together, inspiring them and bringing them hope even at their lowest, in the way that only pop culture can. This could be as blatant as Tommy and Greg bonding and becoming friends over a shared love for James Dean and Greg’s revelation that he was inspired to be an actor by Home Alone. It could also be something subtle, like the way that Tommy reveals an unabashed love for “Never Gonna Give You Up” or dances like a maniac to “The Rhythm of the Night” (OH MY GOD JAMES FRANCO DANCES AS TOMMY WISEAU IN THIS MOVIE AND IT IS GLORIOUS). It could even be something hidden in the film’s subtext, such as the scene where Greg moves out, which is performed quite similarly to the scene in Boogie Nights (a film about a younger actor brought into a crazy world as he tries to become an actor) where Dirk argues with his mother about his quest for fame (although Megan Mullaly’s Mrs. Sestero is a much kinder woman). The entire film understands that the reason we love pop culture – the reason we talk about it, the reason I write about it, and the reason it’s who we are – is because it inspires love in all of us. Creators love it because it releases their juices. Actors love it, as Jacki Weaver’s Carolyn Minnott states, “[Because] we’re actors. One horrible day in this job is worth a thousand good days anywhere else.” And audiences love it because it brings us pure, unabashed joy, even if that wasn’t quite what Tommy was going for. Actually, in many ways, The Disaster Artist is similar to last year’s Florence Foster Jenkins in its portrayal of laughter and joy coming from someone’s massive failure. However, whereas Jenkins invites you to laugh at Meryl Streep’s inability to sing and then condemns you for it, The Disaster Artist reminds us that even if Tommy failed in his quest to create the “greatest drama since A Streetcar Named Desire,” he still created something that people love, and that’s what matters. Through his film, Tommy reminds us of the importance of comedy, of release, and of the joy of pop culture.
Of course, this lesson makes absolute sense coming from Tommy Wiseau, who is reported to be, is portrayed as, and in my experience is a genuinely good man. Franco knows that studying the mystery of the man is part of the key to making this movie work, and luckily he manages to do so to great success. While Greg spends a great deal of the book speculating and gathering theories about Tommy’s origins, the film chooses to dispel with all of that nonsense, allowing for the mystery surrounding Tommy to become bigger. In doing so, he allows Wiseau to become more than just an ordinary being with flaws, hopes and dreams (although he does have all that). He allows Wiseau to become a symbol. Tommy is a genuinely good person – all he wants out of life is love. As he states in The Room, “If a lot of people love each other, the world would be a better place to live.” Therefore, what we see out of Tommy are his attempts to live by his own mantra. For example, when Greg moves in with him, despite a few off-color and odd jokes, he immediately sets up a little cave for himself in the corner to allow Greg to have the bulk of the apartment to himself. He’s an incredibly well-intentioned guy, but due to his inability to pick up on social cues, he can’t help but get in his own way, as can be seen when he’s horrified after breaking Judd Apatow’s glass at a restaurant where they both dine. And unfortunately, like all great characters, he has his mortal flaw: his self-consciousness, which when combined with his vanity, can become a deadly combination. Watching the filming of the sex scene here, where Tommy takes his anger at Greg out on the cast and crew and berates Juliette Danielle’s (Ari Graynor) body, is honestly more painful than watching the sex scene in the actual film, as it forces us to watch someone we care about completely unravel in a horrific display, and in which he becomes the villain that he’s always refused to play (“I’m no Frankenstein! I am hero!” is perhaps the most powerful line in the entire film) However, despite his flaws, you still can’t come out of the film without thinking that this guy is just a sweetheart who needs a break. I actually wish Franco had left in the story of Wiseau building up his clothing and souvenir empire from scratch, because I honestly think the underlying theme of the film is that Tommy Wiseau is, quite literally, the legendary American Dream. He is an immigrant who moved here with nothing and fought hard to earn a great deal of money; he’s embarrassed of his past and creates a series of outlandish lies to help him deal with it; and yet, despite all his flaws, contradictions, illusions of grandeur, and more, he’s still a wholeheartedly good-intentioned and well-meaning individual. He’s America, through and through, for better or worse. And quite frankly, he represents the America I want to live in.
It goes without saying that James Franco is remarkable in this picture. He really nails every single one of Wiseau’ mannerisms, from the voice to the body language to the facial cues, demonstrating a man who has lived a hard life and who wants to make his dreams come true. It’s a performance that is physically, mentally, and vocally challenging, and Franco tackles it with general aplomb. Meanwhile, Dave Franco is a smart choice on James’ part, and not just because his brother looks a good deal like a young Sestero. One of the main themes of the film is the bond of friendship taking on new meaning as they push each other towards their dreams and goals, becoming a sort of brotherhood. To drive those themes home, I can’t imagine anyone better to craft the love-hate relationship that brothers have than two actual brothers. However, Dave earns his role on his own, playing the naïve straight man to Tommy nine times out of ten with general ease. However, in one particular scene – the scene where he shaves in preparation for an “important moment,” the look on Dave’s face says more than a thousand lines, and I mean that in the best possible way. Dave is every bit as good as his brother, even if he has the less flashy role. Outside of the two leads, the film boasts an ensemble unheard of since the day Robert Altman made The Player (ironically, also a Hollywood satire rich with cameos of celebs mocking themselves). Credit goes to the bigger cameos of Seth Rogen as put-upon director Sandy Schklair and Paul Scheer as Raphael Smadja, the appalled Director of Photography, but I also loved the performances of Ari Graynor, Hannibal Buress, Jason Mantzoukas, Nathan Fielder, and Bryan Cranston (playing himself)! However, I think my favorite cameo is probably Zac Efron as Chris-R. Efron has approximately thirty seconds of screen time, and he just commits himself to the role, ironically in the exact same way Dan Janjigian once committed himself to the role fourteen years ago. I could listen to Efron playing an overacting actor every day of the weak. And make sure you stick around after the credits for a very special cameo – it’s actually worth the wait.
The Disaster Artist is a funny, loving tribute to both a film beloved by millions as well as a testament to the joy that pop culture brings us. It explores the relationships shared by men, the feeding frenzy that is Hollywood, and above all, it answers the question of how exactly a movie can go so wrong so fast (we assume that the actors must know that it’s turning out that terribly, but as we see, not everyone is fully aware). I think the film’s overall message is summed up well in the final scene. Halfway through the screening, Greg goes to speak to Tommy about the way the audience is reacting to the film. It’s no surprise that Tommy is devastated at the prospect of the audience laughing at his dark drama, but Greg comforts him with the knowledge that “You made that.” The fact that Tommy went out and tried to make his dreams come true is much more significant than the rest of us, who gave up on our dreams for the sake of security, or for safety from embarrassment. The film is a great companion piece to Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. Both films deal with bad directors trying to make it doing the thing they love. Both treat their absurd subjects with love, care, and nuance. Both films stress the joy and laughter that comes from community, not from derision. And both films are amongst the best of the year. Whether you’ve seen The Room or not, and regardless of your level of love for Tommy Wiseau’s magnum opus, you should see The Disaster Artist. It’ll tear you apart (Hey, I made it this far without a Room reference. Cut me some slack).