Franco and bro tackle one of the world’s worst movies and rescue something quite brilliant from it. Both fun and surprisingly thoughtful.
Who is Tommy Wiseau? Beyond being the strangely accented, eccentric, egocentric and apparently fairly wealthy writer, director, star and producer of what’s often heralded as the worst movie ever made – The Room – that’s not a question James Franco’s The Disaster Artist is interested in answering.
Instead, with Franco in the role of Wiseau and his brother Dave as his 19-year-old protégé and The Room co-star Greg Sestero, it’s a fly on the wall look at the Ed Woods-level omnishambles production of said movie, tanking on release in the US but going on to enjoy an uncanny resurrection as a late-night cult classic with a hilariously dedicated global following.
Reportedly costing somewhere in the region of $6 million to make – exacerbated by the inexplicable decision to buy, not rent, all equipment and shoot simultaneously in both digital and 35mm, requiring extra crew too – none of that money shows on screen.
Introduced in documentary fashion by a variety of talking heads including J.J. Abrams and Adam Scott, The Disaster Artist then becomes a straight-up biopic, though granted one about the wackiest of characters. Watching The Room beforehand will help, but it’s not required homework, as the film recreates it lovingly.
Greg, a shy young man in love with the idea of acting but unable to open up to it is fairly bamboozled by the chutzpah, if not the talent, of Tommy, who descends like Gary Oldman in Dracula on in his acting class in manic Brando mode (watched in horror by a blink and you’ll miss her cameo from Melanie Griffiths).
Not long after the pair hit the road, much to the bamboozlement of Greg’s mother, and leave San Francisco behind for the bright lights of Los Angeles. Fame does not follow, but Tommy’s fortune means that he can create his own starring vehicle for the pair.
Too easily this could have come across as mean-spirited mocking of an apparently mentally ill man, but their odd couple pairing as the unlikeliest of best friends and the pressures working together puts on that relationship somehow keeps it feeling rather sweet. This despite Tommy’s best efforts at repelling, and he is creepily abusive on set, resulting in conflicted sympathy for his seeming obliviousness to his folly picturing himself as the all-American hero.
The Francos deserve a lot of credit for walking this tightrope of emotional responses, even if I found their very obvious sibling similarity a little distracting at first, particularly given the suggestively homoerotic space their (unrelated) characters navigate at certain points.
Joining Griffiths, there are a plethora of celebrity cameos, some, like Judd Apatow and Bryan Cranston, playing themselves, others, like Seth Rogen, Jacki Weaver, Zac Efron and Alison Brie play the largely disbelieving souls drawn into their madness. There’s even a cameo for Sestero himself, though Sharon Stone, like Griffiths, is squandered in a heartbeat.
Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber’s script might not tackle the truth behind his claim to be 19 and from New Orleans, but there is something here hitting at the empty heart of Hollywood itself and the idea that enough money can make anything happen, no matter how bad. And just what is the nature of Tommy’s feelings for Greg? Rather than feeling like a one idea jig with a lot of unanswered questions, The Disaster Artist, Franco senior’s best role since Spring Breakers, ends up being an almost sweet joke on the system itself.
Stephen A Russell @SARussellwords