Funny but hollow, The Disaster Artist misses the mark
Director: James Franco, Starring: James Franco, Dave Franco Running Time: 105 minutes
To know exactly how The Disaster Artist approaches its subject, know this. The film opens with a slew of Hollywood celebrities earnestly describing their love of The Room, the titular disaster, and closes with praise for the phenomenon that the film and its artist, Tommy Wiseau have become. Captions and real footage show Wiseau in attendance at some of the many midnight screenings that have transformed his terrible film from being an LA inside joke to the central story of a genuine Oscar contender, a feel-good wrap-up of an unlikely success story. It’s hard not to see a bit of self-back-patting at the heart of this endeavour. King of the so-bad-its-good films, the appeal of The Room is that it’s a genuine attempt at creating art and exploring human emotions from a man who seemingly understands neither art nor human emotions, nor human anything for that matter. A film that is just off in every way imaginable, provoking equal parts hilarity, revulsion and perverse curiosity. The appeal of The Disaster Artist is The Room. James Franco’s love of the cult film comes through and is sure to get laughs from fellow fans, inspiring a few more along the way, as he takes on the Tommy persona impressively and recreates the best-worst scenes. However, there are depths to this bottom-of-the-barrel that he is not so interested in delving into, preferring a level of insight that never reaches much higher than sketch comedy.
The Disaster Artist is adapted by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (500 Days of Summer , The Fault in our Stars) from the book of the same name, a memoir from actor and Room survivor Greg Sestero. Co-written with Tom Bissell, Sestero outlined his own struggles as an actor and his unlikely friendship with Tommy Wiseau. Though Tommy is ludicrously and suspiciously protective of his past and his resources, possessive, passive-aggressive, rude, sullen around women and in every way possible misguided in his mission to be successful in Hollywood, Greg nevertheless is compelled to remain his friend, possibly because deep down, he sees something of himself past Tommy’s deep European accent and vampirish features. The book reveals Tommy as more than just histrionics from a funny accent, but as a complex, compelling figure. Mostly, there’s a Michael Scottian loneliness in Tommy’s acting ambitions, which is what Franco and the writers focus in on, putting the friendship between Tommy and Greg (played straightly mealy-mouthed by brother Dave Franco) front and centre. Pinky promises to make it in Hollywood are involved. The writing process of Tommy’s magnum nope-us, which formed as a weird mishmash in Tommy’s head between his twisted relationship with Greg, a still mysterious relationship with a woman that obviously went very wrong, and his own total misreading of The Talented Mr. Ripley, is simplified here into “we’ll show them” and shown through a montage.
The disappointing aspect of The Disaster Artist is in this simple approach to adapting the book, feeling like the screenwriters have decided that this is the best way that it works as a movie, narrowing everything down to the theme of ‘friendship’ and shaping the narrative accordingly. Which not only makes things less interesting, but lets Tommy off the hook considerably. Whether he’s butchering Streetcar in his introduction; throwing chairs around and terrifying his unsuspecting stage partner, or denying basic rights to his crew and lecherlously leaping on his co-star once the ill-fated production on The Room begins, his actions are always depicted through the same wacky lens. Some of it is really is wacky and some of it is being glossed over. Neither a complete take-down nor an Ed Wood style tender tribute, Franco and co really just tussle Tommy’s greasy unkempt mane to skip to parodying infamous scenes and stories from the set. The terrible film being made and the outlandish antics off-camera are definitely funny, and there’s enough in them to make The Disaster Artist fun viewing, but past a certain point it becomes questionable how much you’re laughing at The Disaster Artist and how much you’re just laughing at The Room. That original scenes are shown side-by-side with the recreations over the credits really drives that home.
To give Franco his due, this is certainly a performance where the sometimes feckless actor is actually trying. Copying his mannerisms and speech patterns (no one can quite pull off that unique Wiseau drawl), he rises above the bad wig and wardrobe to really embody the character. Not only is his comedic timing on point, just in enough of how he’s not in on the joke, it also never feels like Franco on screen. That’s more than can be said about everybody else. Dave, Seth Rogen and a large number of Hollywood comedians are along for the ride on this one, surrendering the camera to Tommy and limiting themselves to reaction shots and half-hearted improv.
Funny, but hollow, The Disaster Artist lofty award ambitions seem like a bit much when it is unwilling to offer much more insight than the incredulity of an episode of How Did This Get Made? (coincidentally all three hosts of the podcast are among the cast) It’s a lark, but Franco-performance aside, a lazy one, something that feels like the fulfillment of Tommy Wiseau’s vanity project from a director who understands his vanity, but walks back from any other similarities he sees. It’ll get a lot of laughs, deservedly so, but it’s hard to understand it getting much more from audiences, besides perhaps an answer from The Room itself: people are very strange these days.(3 / 5)