As the calender turns to December the abysmal dreck that populates screens for the better part of the year turns into a hungry group of well made films hell bent on winning awards and glory. Coincidentally this is also the time of year I emerge from my Netflix coma and actually leave my house to sit in a theater with strangers and try to stay up on what the cool kids are doing. Tonight I saw The Disaster Artist, which certainly falls into the please give us awards category and seems to check every necessary box of a critical hit this time of year.
For the three people on earth who haven’t heard of this film, it is James Franco’s passion project to make a movie about the true story of Tommy Wiseau’s passion project The Room. Plenty of people will say you don’t need to see The Room to enjoy this movie, and while that might be true, I’ve seen The Room so I can’t speak on that. I would say knowledge is power so if you’re debating seeing this and haven’t yet seen Wiseau’s magnum opus of awful I would get on that. It’s hard but not impossible to discuss this without mentioning Wiseau’s film, but I’m not finna do that.
Now there are a few ways to get into this particular movie and what works about it. If you see it, you’ll get fully caught up in the plot so it’s a waste to give a play-by-play recap. So I’ll just give the super cliff notes version and say it start’s in San Francisco when Greg (Dave Franco) and Tommy (James Franco) meet in an acting class. Greg is terrified of failure and is drawn to Tommy’s utter fearlessness, while Tommy is just happy to have someone look up to him. They become friends, decide to move to LA together because Tommy for some reason already has an apartment down there and they try to break into Hollywood. Things work out about as well as you’d expect, then they decide to make their own film, so they make The Room and the rest of the story takes us up to that movie’s premiere.
So the things that work with this film are the things that often work with biopics. Taking someone distinctive and well known with a story that is somewhat familiar gives us a built in audience. It usually is a vehicle for whatever actor is trying to win an award. James Franco has gotten nominated before by playing someone based on a real person (127 Hours), but that was not Wiseau. This tactic does work, and did wonders for Jamie Foxx in Ray and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote, but depending on the rest of the crop for this year’s actor race I’d be surprised if Franco gets anything more than a nomination. That doesn’t mean he isn’t great as Wiseau it’s just that biopics tread on the familiar so much that it can lead to boredom. He has the mannerisms and the speech down perfect and the performance is truly trans-formative, it’s just exactly what you would expect. Franco meets all the requirements for a great performance I’m just not sure he exceeds them. This never feels like an original character and doesn’t evolve beyond mimicking the very distinct Wiseau. Granted I said the same thing about Hoffman in Capote, so what do I know?
The other thing I would say holds this film back is that it doesn’t really answer any of the questions we had going into it. We still have no idea what country or planet Wiseau is really from, where his money comes from, or how old he is, and the mystery of these questions keeps coming up. Now I certainly don’t mind ambiguity in my movies but I can’t help feel like this story has already been told.
Before this sounds too much like I’m shitting on it, I will say that this is a good movie. Instantly more entertaining than The Room itself, in all it’s wacko charm. The Room has moments of baffling brilliance surrounded by bad everything and sporadic pacing. The Disaster Artist seems to make the case that the film would have been great if Wiseau wasn’t so Wiseau. There were plenty of other things wrong with that movie, and trust me no one would remember it today if it were competently made. The question is how will Franco’s version of events age?
There has been interest in the past in untalented auteurs making their would be masterpiece while everyone looks on laughing. American Movie is probably the best example of this, but that is a documentary and it does hit hard. There’s also Best Worst Movie which chronicles the ill-fated Troll 2 which again is a documentary. The closest film might be Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, which helps to make art out of a legendary “bad” filmmaker. Minus the artistic art design and black and white photography, it’s safe to say Burton’s film was an influence on this.
Franco has done a damn good job at distilling what made The Room so memorable with this movie. All those famous lines and baffling moments get explained sometimes almost to the point of being redundant. I particularly loved the early scene of Greg and Tommy watching Rebel Without a Cause and hearing James Dean utter his very famous “You’re tearing me apart” line which would gain a second life in The Room.
It is almost impossible to laugh with Wiseau rather than at him and there definitely is some pathos to be had in this movie. Franco does a great job at showing his hurt and frustration at a world that doesn’t seem to understand him but the end result is eerily similar to the performance he gave in The Room. I revisited The Room last week in preparation for this and I thought for a brief second if this could have been a great movie perhaps with a different director-star. There are some moments in Wiseau’s film that could be at home in any serious picture, and the majority of the awfulness comes from his baffling attempt at being a normal earth human.
One thing that gets asked about horrible movies is how did it get made? How come no one spoke up and realized it was terrible? Everyone on set seems to figure out this movie is terrible and they just wait for it to be buried and forgotten about while they collect their paychecks and get on with it. I know that nearly every awful movie someone thought was great going in, or they didn’t understand it and hoped for the best. It makes Wiseau far more pitiful in this movie and it isn’t hard to feel sorry for the guy, when everyone is pretty much openly against the movie. I don’t doubt that Wiseau’s own misguided attempts at being a serious filmmaker involved minor torture on set.
At the end of the day we are supposed to laugh at this film and this man. We might not always feel good about it but Franco was raised in the Apatow school of awkward comedy. Apatow himself appears to give Wiseau the harsh criticism that leads to them making the movie in the first place. There is definitely an attempt to take this film seriously that helps to elevate from some of the more outright silly Franco-Rogen vehicles of the past several years. Franco is using Wiseau for his own professional evolution. I can’t think of a movie since Raging Bull that depicted a still living person in a less flattering light.
The film is certainly worth seeing and there are no shortage of highlights. There are certainly no shortage of cringe-worthy scenes as well, but that’s almost to be expected with Franco. The cast is also pretty damn good, and Franco got some serious help from a bunch of massively over qualified supporting players. I particularly loved Bob Odenkirk as another acting coach, and felt Zac Efron made the most of his very small role. At the end of the day films should transport us and be entertaining, and this checks both of those boxes. I wouldn’t say this is the best film of the year, but it’s certainly worth checking out.
p.s. Stick around after the credits, which if Marvel taught you anything you should already be doing that.