Cast: James Franco, Dave Franco, Seth Rogen, Alison Brie, Ari Graynor, Josh Hutcherson, Jacki Weaver
Director: James Franco
Running time: 1 hour 43 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
The real question hovering over James Franco's latest bizarro meta experiment, The Disaster Artist, is why? Why was this movie made? Why does it exist? Why is Franco feeling the need to lionize writer-director-star-egomaniac Tommy Wiseau into the category of misunderstood genius? There's certainly potential in peeking behind the scenes of the 2003 cult classic The Room to unpack how one of the worst films ever made actually came to be. There's also potential in dissecting the deranged figure of Wiseau, the film's triple-threat creator, in so far as he symbolizes a mutated form of Hollywood vanity. Furthermore, the idea of why people enjoy or become obsessed with colossally terrible movies is something worth exploring, but The Disaster Artist barely even acknowledges such potentials. Instead, the film pivots into the realm of sub-Jud Apatow bromance with the predictable arc of loveable weirdos following their dreams. The Room is unbelievably inept, but fascinatingly so; leaving one laughing in slack-jawed disbelief. The Disaster Artist, on the other hand, is simply inept, and the joke seems to be on the audience.
Based on Greg Sestero's 2013 tell-all book of the same name, Franco's adaptation is problematic because it wants to both mock The Room as well as pay tribute to its loopy charms. The film's introduction is almost a litmus test for what's to follow; featuring a gallery of celebrity guests (including Adam Scott and J.J. Abrams) gushing over The Room backed by swelling music cues. It's obvious from the outset that Franco and company will be straining under their adoration for Wiseau's magnum opus as well as the temptation to to punch down. In the film's first scene, we see how Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) and Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) met during an acting class in San Francisco where the former thrashes around the stage around doing a demented version of A Streetcar Named Desire. An odd friendship soon develops between the earnest but shy Greg and the outspoken yet vampiric Wiseau, making The Disaster Artist a low-rent tale of following your dreams in Hollywood.
Once the two land in Los Angeles (Tommy has an apartment there and inexplicably deep pockets), their failure to land significant acting roles leads them to envision a film of their own; one which will make them stars and take the industry by storm. Greg gets a girlfriend (Alison Brie, given nothing to do), while Tommy looks on like a betrayed, wounded puppy. The Disaster Artist, therefore, is not that dissimilar from other cameo-packed male bonding comedies like I Love You, Man, but Greg and Tommy's relationship never goes anywhere remotely interesting. It's simply scene after scene of Greg acting gung-ho, protective, or upset with his strange friend, and then Tommy acting out defensively. Additionally, once the film veers into the actual making of The Room, the laughs come mainly from recognition (if you are one of the initiated) or simply through Franco's uncanny impression.
Of course, Franco is nothing if not committed; nailing the odd speech patterns and peculiar laugh of this larger than life character, but the performance never really transcends skilled mimicry because, well, the real Wiseau already seems like a caricature. The notion that he's somehow an outsider genius artist like Ed Wood also never tracks, since the creation of The Room seems to have sprung from escalated hubris and self-delusion rather than an earnest love of movie making. The only moment here that truly gets at this contradiction is one in which Wiseau terrorizes the cast and crew during an uncomfortable love scene. The on-set tantrum that follows speaks to Wiseau's misogyny, arrogance, and lack of self-awareness, but The Disaster Artist otherwise brushes off or never fully engages in these darker aspects.
Perhaps the film's biggest failure comes during the final reel, where Franco and his writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber posit the "so bad it's great" phenomenon catching on almost immediately during the packed premiere of The Room. This decision, complete with lame reaction shots of the crowd laughing uproariously, feels painfully dishonest, as does Wiseau's awkward speech after a standing ovation. In real life, it's clear Tommy wasn't in on the joke until years later after realizing his creation's cult-like fandom. Here, Franco suggests a man with more self-awareness and less ego, which is nearly impossible to take seriously.
If anything, the "how did The Room this movie get made" query can be inverted to ask, "why did The Disaster Artist get made?" Other than as a vanity project for Franco (just like Wiseau, get it? It's meta!), or to prove meticulous recreation--right down to sets, costuming, and lighting--there doesn't seem to be any reason for The Disaster Artist to exist. Therefore, the obvious takeaway here is to watch The Room, which has more bewildered laughs and uncompromising strangeness than anything on display here, despite Franco's best Wiseau laugh.