[TIFF 2017] REVIEW: ‘The Disaster Artist’, a heartfelt tribute to the people who make bad films
Movie trends and tastes may change, but there’s one constant no matter which sliver of film history you look at: the movies are powered by dreamers. Maybe it’s the characters on the screen, or the creatives behind the camera, but a movie is always an act sharing a dream with someone – even if it’s the bizarre, misguided product of a Hollywood outcast.
In the case of an objectively bad movie like Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, on a first viewing you take it all in and struggle to comprehend it, as if you’re actually in bed with a fever. Then maybe you’ll seek out a second viewing with friends, maybe one of the famous midnight screenings, where you and the other viewers take control of the dream, to poke fun at its gibberish dialogue and odd staging. Maybe if you’re especially enterprising, you may even create something of your own to amplify the fun even more.
Of course, if you happen to be James Franco, a quick parody video probably won’t cut it. After all, as one of Hollywood’s more unexpected multi-hyphenates, he has jumped into vastly more challenging projects in the past, so why not make a feature-length behind-the-scenes dramatization of how The Room came to be?
Surprisingly, there’s a fine line to tread. As fertile as The Room is as a grounds for mockery, after more than 90 minutes, even the most cynical audiences will eventually feel bad about making fun of a guy like Wiseau. One person who knew this better than anyone is Greg Sestero, the co-lead actor in The Room who found himself saddled with something few people would ever volunteer for: a broken film production, a career-ruining role, and a friendship with Wiseau – a self-proclaimed Cajun actor and mysterious financier who wanted nothing more than a shot at real fame.
Sestero could have easily written an account of the making of The Room and destroyed Wiseau on every page. Instead, with The Disaster Artist (which he published in 2013) Sestero does lay bare how something like The Room could happen, but also writes movingly about how and why he stayed friends with Wiseau, who’s shown to be self-obsessed, jealous, and controlling in almost every aspect of his life. It’s a story that celebrates the value of getting something – anything – made in a harsh business, even when that thing is a failure by any traditional measure.
Franco clearly picked up on the bittersweet subtext of Sestero’s book, and maybe even sympathized with Wiseau’s frustration that Hollywood just doesn’t get his “art”. So Franco assembled an impressive team, using the kind of connections and influence that Wiseau could only dream of, to make an adaptation of The Disaster Artist. Franco himself stars as Wiseau, his brother Dave plays Sestero, and luminaries like Alison Brie, Seth Rogen, Josh Hutcherson, Zac Efron fill out the cast.
The film follows Sestero and Wiseau’s friendship in the late 90s, as they try and fail to make a mark in Los Angeles. Sestero has model-perfect features but lacks the crucial acting spark to get anywhere beyond a slot at a talent agency. Wiseau, meanwhile, uses his unknowable wealth to finance his and Sestero’s stay in the city. Unfortunately, there’s not enough money in the world to convince a casting director to take on a guy like Wiseau in a film role; between his poor English, impossible-to-pinpoint Eastern European accent, and other odd habits, Wiseau is depicted as a box office flop made flesh.
So Wiseau resolves to make a film himself, and ropes in Sestero to help. What becomes immediately clear is that Wiseau has no idea what he’s doing. He buys hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment outright (the standard is to rent), terrorizes everyone on set, and fires anyone who disagrees with his vision. And that’s before you even consider the film itself, which is based on an incomprehensible Wiseau-drafted script, and so riven with poor acting and bizarre creative choices that you almost want to describe it as outsider art. Until you remember that it ended the careers of almost everyone involved.
Do you have to have seen The Room, or one of the many highlights reels on YouTube, to appreciate The Disaster Artist? Some would say yes – to an extent, the joy of watching Franco’s film is completely proportional to how well you know the whole story already. But Franco is careful to focus most of his runtime on the relationships behind the scenes, chief among them the one between his Wiseau and his brother’s Sestero. Franco limits the amount of recreated Room scenes as much as he can, and extracts some surprising sympathy for Wiseau’s almost childlike tantrums when he senses Sestero distancing himself, or when Wiseau is rebuffed in an awkward encounter with a successful producer.
In the climactic scene at the premiere of The Room, Franco cuts back and forth from the eerily accurate recreations to Wiseau’s crushed expression as he realizes the audience is laughing uproariously at his labour of love. As unsettled as we may be by Wiseau, it’s a testament to the film that we can feel sorry for Wiseau at this moment, even after all the horrible things he’s done to get the movie made.
This may also be thanks to Franco’s committed performance as Wiseau, which goes far deeper than a fly-by-night impression for a quick joke. It’s almost creepy how closely James Franco mimics Wiseau’s every gesture and vocal quirk. Dave Franco’s Sestero isn’t nearly as convincing (Sestero has always seemed far more aloof than the wide-eyed, puppy dog performance here). But on the whole, the cast and crew are confident enough in their recreations to show off a literal side-by-side comparison of original shots from The Room with their versions during the credits – almost worth the price of admission for any Room fans.
Will The Disaster Artist become a cult film in its own right? Unlikely; it’s far too well-made for that. But because it offers such insight into the nightmare of The Room – in as loving a way as possible under the circumstances – I look forward to it joining The Room in late-night double bills around the world. In the past, such screenings were met with people wondering whether what they saw was even real. Now they can immediately get to know the "visionaries" who made it possible.
The Disaster Artist gets three stars out of four.
- Franco saves the promised cameo by the real-life Wiseau ‘til after the credits, but part of me wanted it to happen earlier. Of course, that would have depended on Wiseau being able to play anyone other than himself.
- In the book, Sestero mentions getting a bit part on Patch Adams during his search for roles; seeing this recreated would have been next to impossible (how do you find a suitable person to play Robin Williams?!)
- I’d love to know how much of The Room Franco and co. re-shot – if there’s a lot more than what ended up in the final film, it should all be dumped onto the Blu-ray.