The Disaster Artist Review
James Franco and Tommy Wiseau have more in common than immediately meets the eye. Franco has desired to be taken seriously as a filmmaker for years, taking on numerous directorial projects every year - usually, adaptations of world renowned works of literature, adapted to the screen for the first time. Wiseau never hid his own intentions of being labelled the modern heir to Tennessee Williams with his writing, and a contemporary equivalent to James Dean with his screen presence. For both Franco and Wiseau, their attempts at greatness fell flat and have led to them becoming pop culture laughing stocks in some way.
It’s hard not to see The Disaster Artist (Franco’s best directorial effort to date) as a significantly meta film as well as being a hilarious behind-the-scenes biopic, Franco clearly sees some of his own artistic struggles in Wiseau, and empathises with his doomed quest to achieve greatness. No wonder the role of Tommy Wiseau feels like the role Franco was born to play; it’s the greatest performance of his absurdly eclectic career, managing to find empathy in a public figure so difficult to like, and so easy to mock. Within the first ten minutes, Franco completely disappears in to the role, and I’d completely forgotten I wasn’t watching Wiseau himself. This may be the only time in cinema history where this is the best review he could possibly receive.
Starting in 1998 in a San Francisco acting class, Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) is having difficulty coming out of his shell with his performance. A mysterious stranger named Tommy (James Franco) walks onto the stage, delivering a flabbergasting, chair-throwing performance that alienates the audience but instantly endears Greg. The pair quickly strike up a working relationship, and bizarre friendship, moving to LA in the pursuit of acting careers. Work for the pair is nowhere to be found in the intervening years, so Tommy writes his own, self-funded film: The Room. Despite not knowing how old Tommy is, what country he comes from (Tommy claims to be “from New Orleans” despite his thick European accent) or how he earns enough money to fund a $6 million movie, Greg agrees to join him on the journey. The rest is cinema history.
Fourteen years after its original release, and The Room is one of the most enduring bad films in history. Over in London, sold out crowds pack into the Prince Charles Cinema every month to catch raucous screenings and The Disaster Artist succeeds as a biopic by understanding the fundamental enjoyment of a particular kind of bad movie, and the enduring fascination with how something so utterly awful could ever get made. Screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (best known for 500 Days of Summer and The Fault in Our Stars) follow in the footsteps of Tim Burton’s Ed Wood by simultaneously understanding the humour in how a bad piece of art gets made, but also the underlying melancholy of seeing the world reject something you put your heart and soul into. Franco doesn’t shy away from depicting Wiseau as an unlikeable force of nature on set. But his mistaken belief that he’s in the same league as Hitchcock has clearly led him to a state of delusion, and there’s genuine plaudits in making somebody so brazenly detestable on set and too bizarrely comic off it, a source of empathy in the film’s later stages.
Despite the niche subject matter, the film has excessive mainstream appeal by being an uproarious, highly quotable comedy with as many intentional laughs as The Room does unintentional ones. The plaudits may all (deservedly) be on Franco’s leading performance, yet he is helped by an ensemble of fantastic comic performers, including a brilliant supporting turn from Seth Rogen, whose acerbic asides throughout culminate in a screening of The Room, where he becomes the film’s equivalent of Statler and Waldorf from The Muppets in his cheery criticisms of the awful film in front of him.
Franco’s direction should also receive equal attention. His performance may be commanding and frequently hilarious, but it’s helped by his keen attention to detail only in a post-script do we see his recreations of pivotal scenes from The Room side by side with Wiseau’s originals. Somewhat miraculously, everything from the rhythm of the dialogue readings to the bizarre set designs, aligns perfectly. For those unfamiliar with the source material, this will feel like the natural moment the film has been building up to. For big fans, this is a brilliant climax that asserts The Disaster Artist as the natural crowd pleasing film that The Room became by accident. It’s hard not to walk away with a smile on your face- after all, there’s something quietly profound about the idea of finding joy in the films cited as the worst ever made, and Franco’s film understands the unusual catharsis of watching a bad movie with an adoring crowd. There was an unprompted standing ovation in my screening, and if it keeps charming audiences like that, I think there’s something fitting about the idea of a biopic of the “Citizen Kane of bad movies” becoming a dark horse in the upcoming Oscar race.
The Disaster Artist is hilarious, offering a career best performance from James Franco and perfectly understanding why a bizarre, awkward melodrama has the loyal cult following it does. One of the all time great “behind the scenes” movie biopics, it’s the accomplished work of cinema that The Room was so desperate to be and will leave audiences eager to go back and revisit Wiseau’s own effort as soon as the credits start to roll.