Review: 'The Disaster Artist'

Thursday, December 7, 2017

No Exit

2017 / USA / 104 min. / Directed by James Franco / Opened in select cities on Dec. 1, 2017; opens locally on Dec. 8, 2017

Andrew Wyatt

James Franco is a bit of an enigma. Following his breakout in the television series Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000) and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films (2002-2007), Franco has become a ubiquitous presence as an actor: shoring up broad, bro-friendly comedies (Pineapple Express [2008], This Is the End [2013]); appearing in projects from esteemed directors like Gus Van Sant (Milk [2008]) and Danny Boyle (127 Hours [2010]); and taking roles in television series ranging from day-time soap operas (General Hospital [2009-2012]) to prestige dramas (The Deuce [2017]). Like a Nicolas Cage with more creative integrity, Franco seems game for almost any role that is offered to him, so long as he finds it stimulating. Regardless of the project, it’s the actor's eager, malleable magnetism that consistently leaves the strongest impression. He is uniquely capable of simultaneously radiating a regular-guy ease and the narcissistic fervor of an armchair philosopher-artist—even when his charisma is turned on its head to menacing effect, as in Gia Coppola’s Palo Alto (2013).

However, Franco has also evolved into a prolific writer, director, and producer, one whose artistic choices often baffle observers. How is one to explain his attempt, with co-director Travis Mathews, to reconceive the production of Williams Friedkin’s exploitative gay crime thriller Cruising (1980) as the peculiar, meta-fictional Interior. Leather Bar. (2013)? Or his relentless campaign to adapt the works of American literary luminaries such as Cormac McCarthy (Child of God [2013]), William Faulkner (The Sound and the Fury [2014]), and John Steinbeck (In Dubious Battle [2016]), efforts that have reliably been met with critical jeers? 

The generous reading of Franco’s eccentric career as a filmmaker is that, as with his actorly choices, he is unfailingly catholic, willing to tackle any project that he feels passionate about—even when it proves tone-deaf, ill-conceived, or just plain inexplicable. To his credit, even his most questionable and pompous auteurist ventures never exhibit the sort of affected insouciance that many artists don like armor against failure. One gets the sense that Franco always wants viewers to like his work, whether he’s playing an affable stoner goofball or making an ungainly hash out of a Great American Novel.

It’s somehow fitting, then, that his new feature, The Disaster Artist, is an absurdist comedy about an enigmatic auteur—and that it emerges as Franco’s warmest, most crowd-pleasing directorial effort to date. Based on the non-fiction book of the same name by actor Greg Sestero, the film chronicles the notorious production of The Room (2003), a film that has been dubbed by its ardent admirers (anti-admirers?) as The Worst Film Ever Made. (Devotees of Plan 9 from Outer Space [1959] or Troll 2 [1999] might beg to differ, but cinematic catastrophes, much like masterpieces, are highly subjective.) The Room’s awfulness proved so inimitable and mesmerizing that the film eventually spawned a giddy cult following, complete with sold-out midnight screenings and Rocky Horror-style audience participation.

Crummy, bungling indie films are a dime a dozen, of course, but those films don’t boast The Room’s writer, director, and star, Tommy Wiseau, a secretive oddball distinguished by his mane of greasy black hair and mumbly, unplaceable accent. Had he been dreamed into existence by Kurt Vonnegut (or even John Waters), Wiseau would have been regarded as too outlandish. Natrually, Franco portrays Wiseau in The Disaster Artist, donning a layer of prosthetics—the filmmaker claims to have survived a car accident in his youth—and uncannily recreating his bizarre cadences and pronunciations. It's obvious that Franco, while he might not feel an outright artistic kinship with Wiseau, at least understands the power of the outsider filmmaker's ambitions, frustrations, and creative compulsions.

Sestero’s book, co-written with Tom Bissell, contends that The Room’s production was exactly the sort of surreal experience that the on-screen evidence suggests. Scott Neustadter and Michael H Weber’s adapted screenplay unflinchingly and hilariously conveys the set's atmosphere as a kind of absurdist hell, with Wiseau presiding as both an enthusiastic master of ceremonies and a Kubrickian tyrant. While they delight in poking fun at Wiseau’s incompetence and the cinematic abomination he spawned, the writers and Franco crucially frame The Disaster Artist not as an exercise in self-flattering scornfulness, but as a celebration of male friendship, artistic fearlessness, and the discovery of unabashed delight in the aesthetically terrible. Tellingly, Franco’s film opens with snippets of real-world comedians explaining why they adore The Room—not with an ironic sneer, but from a place of genuine affection and astonishment.

It is a testament to the unassuming success of The Disaster Artist that one need not be an enthusiast of The Room to appreciate the tragicomical arc of Franco’s feature, or its big-hearted generosity for dreamers, weirdos, and weirdo dreamers. Indeed, while some of the film’s allusions and recreations assume a line-by-line intimacy with Wiseau’s dumpster fire magnum opus—from “Hi, doggie” to “Cheep cheep cheep” to “I definitely have breast cancer”—these are ultimately ancillary pleasures. If one brushes away the meta-jokes, The Disaster Artist is an accessible, sweetly sad farce about the relationship between Greg Sestero and Tommy Wiseau.

Aspiring actor Sestero (James’ brother Dave Franco) is 19 years old and living with his mother in San Francisco when he first encounters fellow wannabe thespian Wiseau. The awkward Sestero suffers from petrifying stage fright, but Wiseau's alarming, go-for-broke methods makes Marlon Brando and James Dean look positively restrained. In the eyes of acting coaches and casting directors, Wiseau is not only an awful performer, but hopelessly deluded about his leading man appeal. He’s a Frankenstein type, not a Stanley Kowalski type, as an acting instructor (Bob Odenkirk) bluntly explains. The shy, self-critical Sestero is awestruck, however, by Wiseau’s audacious confidence, and before long the pair have become unlikely friends, and eventually L.A.-bound roommates. Never mind that Wiseau seems to be a couple of decades older than Sestero, or that the source of his seemingly bottomless income is a complete mystery. (He doesn’t live extravagantly, however; Franco’s Wiseau plainly craves the populist celebrity and artistic recognition of Hollywood stardom, but the opulent lifestyle seems almost incidental to him.)

The new roommates struggle to find steady acting gigs in Los Angeles, although Sestero’s fresh-faced good looks allow him to land a respected agent, as well as a girlfriend, Amber (Alison Brie). This leads to rumbles of petulant envy from Wiseau, particular when Sestero moves out of his friend’s apartment and in with said girlfriend. Distraught over this perceived treachery and his complete failure to find acting opportunities, Wiseau is eventually motivated to write his own screenplay, the hothouse melodrama The Room. He proudly presents the script to Sestero as “a real Hollywood movie”. Despite Sestero's misgivings about the screenplay, the younger actor is ultimately cajoled into the project by a (seemingly) plum co-leading role, the obligations of friendship, and Wiseau’s typically glib confidence. In short order, the pair are ramping up production at a small, rented studio, where Wiseau makes liberal use of his checkbook to ensure that his baffling vision is executed just as he desires.

What follows is a professional train wreck of legendary proportions, where Wiseau responds to every dispute—with actors and crew alike, particularly script supervisor Sandy (Seth Rogen)—by doubling down on the unimpeachable correctness of his artistic choices. The director’s bizarre understanding of dramatic logic and audience expectations drags everyone involved  into a demented, enervating purgatory of delays, reshoots, and exhausting, circular arguments. These Wiseau always seems to win, given that he holds both the purse strings and the auteur trump card. The friendship between Sestero and Wiseau is put under colossal strain, their rift culminating when the former is obliged to ditch a high-profile opportunity due to the drastically over-extended shoot for The Room. There is little Florence Foster Jenkins-style coddling on Wiseau’s set: The cast and crew are forthright about their frustrations with the intolerable working conditions, the story’s rank illogic, and the director’s general ineptness. However, it’s only when the previously unfailingly loyal Sestero gives voice to these same qualms—that Wiseau has no idea what he’s doing, and his film is unremittingly awful—that the director seems truly wounded.

There is a built-in happy ending of sorts, in which The Room finds a keen audience among the connoisseurs of cinematic crap, but Franco relegates this roundabout triumph to the epilogue, concluding the film’s narrative proper with the L.A. premiere of Wiseau’s misbegotten child. Franco’s version of Wiseau embraces the film’s terribleness that first night, but the actual history is undoubtedly less tidy, given that the film’s sensationally toxic reputation congealed mainly through word-of-mouth. However, Franco is less interested in accurately recreating the origin of The Room’s cult fandom than in conveying the agony and the ecstasy of the film's creation—right up to that galvanic moment when it was released into the wild and suddenly belonged to the world.

Mordantly funny and consistently winsome, The Disaster Artist is essentially two stories: one about the strange bromance between Sestero and Wiseau, which is presented as simple-minded, but still weirdly touching in its junior high neediness; and one about the punishing fever dream that was the making of The Room. Franco and the writers cleverly present the former as the key to understanding much (though not all) of the latter. They frame Wiseau’s film as the means by which the dubious auteur grappled with his and Sestero’s fraught friendship. In one of the The Disaster Artist ’s more astute scenes, the bemused cast and crew commiserate over the confounding script, posing myriad theories about who or what various characters were intended to represent in Wiseau’s fevered imagination. As various hypotheses are ventured—Does adulterous Lisa symbolize the world’s unjust cruelty to the misunderstood Wiseau?—Sestero slowly comes to an unspoken realization: Everything in The Room reflects some aspect of his and Wiseau’s relationship. He is the obscure object of Tommy’s desire.

It’s hardly the most emotionally sophisticated depiction of a male friendship, and its relatability is hindered a bit by both Wiseau’s childishness and Sestero’s inexplicable affection for the filmmaker's maddening, off-putting strangeness. However, there’s an unexpected poignancy to the relationship melodrama, one bolstered by the Franco siblings’ easy real-world rapport. It gives the cringe comedy a welcome glaze of credible pathos, even as the elder Franco does his best to potray Wiseau as an alienating, intolrerable creep. The resulting tension between humane anguish and repellent weirdness has a startling, strangely pleasing character that enlivens The Disaster Artist, scene after scene.

There’s more to Franco’s film than guy-on-guy bonding, sulking, and screaming matches, however. It’s The Disaster Artist’s untrammeled affection for the often-hellish ordeal of artistic creation that elevates the film from a droll, scuzzy Hollywood fable about ambitious losers to something more sparkling and munificent. Much like Ed Wood (1994), Tim Burton’s swooning and gleefully freakish ode to auteurism, Franco’s feature is entranced with the turbulent process by which an artistic vision becomes reality, no matter how half-baked that vision might be. The Disaster Artist is not invested in the heartfelt “family of monsters” portraiture that preoccupies Burton’s film, but Franco’s feature is more richly appreciative of the collaborative nature of filmmaking. In what might be regarded as the film's statement of ethos, one actress observes that even the worst day on a film shoot is better than the best day at any other job. Given that it concerns the Worst Movie of All Time, The Disaster Artist is remarkably, deeply, sloppily in love with the movies. It loves them less for their formal or thematic attributes than for their ability to unite people through the communal experiences of creation and consumption.

During the film’s climactic scene at the premiere of The Room, Franco’s Wiseau experiences his first real moment of runaway terror, as the audience descends into hysterics at the spellbinding terribleness of his film. It’s Sestero’s encouragement that hastily turns Wiseau’s distress to pride: All their blood, sweat, and tears have resulted in something that is making people unapologetically happy. Whether deliberate or not, they’ve made an enduring mark (of sorts) on the world. Franco's penchant for such sanguine reflection is consistent with The Disaster Artist's dual nature as both a cockeyed celebration of the quixotic auteur and an illustration that the artist’s intentions matter not one whit once the lights go down.

Rating: B-