What James Franco brings to his performance in The Disaster Artist elevates it to idolatry. His emulation of Tommy Wiseau’s infamous badness required the respect one gives to a great artist; if Franco wasn’t just a little deluded about Wiseau’s artistic intentions the film would have come off as fluffy and insincere. Anyone can make fun of a serious failure: it took Franco (and I believe no one else could have done it) to make good on one.
The problem with his direction is the mirror image of this necessity. You can practically feel Wiseau breathing down his neck, chewing through the words, “I am NOT villain.” Franco performs Tommy with affectionate realism but directs him with too much ambiguous charity, as though The Disaster Artist is the film in which Wiseau finally gets to be the hero, even if no one can quite figure out why. This film is not about the reality of the worst movie ever made: it is a fluffy companion to your enjoyment of it, which is taken as a given. Fans of The Room might rejoice at this validation of their tastes (though more discerning ones may leave with a kind of empty ambivalence, like the movie makes them wonder why they ever liked The Room to begin with). But The Disaster Artist will not turn anyone else into new fans, as Ed Wood did for the previous worst movie ever. The Room is not within The Disaster Artist because this biopic doesn’t portray its angsty misery, the drudgery of its production, the scope of its waste of life, or the depth of feeling of its misguided creator. It refers to these things with breezy humor, seemingly to triumph over them. It makes a man of compelling weirdness sympathetic, but I don’t feel like I understand him more than I did before.
I do not consider Tommy Wiseau to be a great artist. But it has nothing to do with the badness of The Room, which required so much turbulent and gutsy energy that with the language to communicate his feelings I think he would have been explosively relevant, the Andy Kaufman of movies; I think if you could take a shot of Tommy’s vibe into your arm you’d feel like the most powerful person in the world. The reason I consider him to be a low artist is that with all his unflappable self-assurances he aims so low: making great art is merely his excuse for getting what he really wants, which is validation. You can see this at the debut of his masterwork. He no longer cares about the genius he sees in it; he can’t stop thinking about the people who don’t understand it. They are all laughing at him. His grungy dignity fades from his face like it’s being showered off for the first time in his whole life.
Compare this to the filmmaker’s reaction in Ed Wood, one of solemn self-reverence, a man so completely at peace with his own tastes that he became a stranger on his own planet. “This is the one,” he said, and meant it. He doesn’t stick around to hear anyone’s reaction. This is because Wood had a kind of blatant soul-seeking, a rigorous energy that requires a little blindness, and he had it in common with Orson Welles and Tennessee Williams, whom Wiseau so admires. But Wiseau admires them because he wishes for that energy; in The Disaster Artist he is portrayed as measurably more pathetic.
I think this is because of the plot, which simplifies the complex humanity of Wiseau’s eccentric lifestyle in favor of making him seem like he needs to be redeemed for it. Perhaps fans of The Room felt they needed redemption for their behavior too, suddenly realizing that to some people, throwing spoons at the screen at the appearance of a spoon (a The Room viewing tradition) might seem a little strange.
From the opening titles, for instance, complete with easy guitar runs, The Disaster Artist believes it’s a buddy comedy about two roommates aspiring to make it big in Hollywood. Greg Sistero (Dave Franco) is a sculpture of who Tommy believes himself to be, a portrait of James Dean-era Americana, with easy shoulders and glittery eyes. By his looks alone, Greg is more successful than Tommy at nabbing commercials and auditions (the script aptly describes Wiseau as a cross between Jack Sparrow and an 80s Van Damme villain). But Greg envies Tommy’s confidence, as in a revelatory scene where Tommy muscles him into loudly reading a play in the booth of a diner. The Disaster Artist envies him too, and perhaps it should. But this simple buddy comedy portraying the passive, doughy Greg led along by his crazy friend’s ambitions hardly explores the depth of feeling of Wiseau’s addicting energy. Their bond has none of the world-weary togetherness of Wood’s and Legosi’s, and when it’s time to make the masterwork and Tommy’s countenance turns rageful with creator’s angst, I find that I have no empathy for these people.
For example, Tommy’s writing comes under contention during the filming of The Room, the film’s best part by far. He chuckles absently at a story about a woman who gets beaten (“Heh-ha ha ha. What a story Mark”), as the script supervisor (Seth Rogen) advises him that it’s in bad taste. “Human behavior applies to all of us,” Tommy pleads, though it’s more complex and unapproachable to him than quantum mechanics. Is he reaching into a part of himself that hates women, and describing all humans in the only way he knows: in terms of himself? Earlier, he experiences pangs of Shakespearean betrayal when Greg starts going out with someone (Alison Brie). Is this because he needs Greg to be exclusive to him or because he can’t stand the idea of women sullying the art of his life? Look at Lisa’s (here played by Ari Graynor) written portrayal in The Room, as not just the object of his desires but also the instrument of his frustrated destruction; where does that come from?
The only flaws Franco chooses to portray in Tommy are those that are retroactively considered great feats, all related to his unwillingness to compromise on his vision. By not exploring him as a complex individual, The Disaster Artist justifies Tommy’s existence with the blunt assurance that Tommy had in his own life. But those who love The Room don’t need his existence to be justified: we needed to sink our teeth into the complex artistic identity of a man obsessed with demeaning women without seeming to realize it, with making both great and mass-marketable art and struggling inside the contradiction, with an inability to remember the lines he himself slaved over as though they were autobiographical. He simultaneously reveres and forgets himself and The Room is the perfect product of his turmoil; The Disaster Artist is just a cozy memorial to it. Like the moment Tommy decided to call The Room a black comedy, it’s full of compromise.
The Disaster Artist portrays the process of making a terrible film without exploring or uncovering its complex weirdness. It doesn’t communicate how the film is so bad, from a filmmaking perspective, nor why Tommy walks everywhere as though the whole world can’t see how sexy he is. It is a playbill for The Room, and should have been a scalpel. After Ed Wood, I now watch Plan 9 from Outer Space with a kind of teary reverence, evaluating even its most eccentric mistakes as honest errors of a kind of maddening sincerity that the world could use a little more of. The Room remains unchanged in my mind by this account of it. Its badness is still as worthy of sadistic curiosity, and I’m still as inexplicably drawn to its view of human behavior. The Disaster Artist could not change that even to enhance it, not with the enticing accuracy of its performances, its breezy cinematography, or the reverence it has for its own silliness. It's reverent to the point of blindness and in a way, so am I. I even went to it with a spoon in my pocket, just in case.
Image is a screenshot from the film.
Cast & Crew
Michael H. Weber
Greg Sistero and Tom Bissell (book)
|Tommy Wiseau||James Franco|
|Greg Sistero||Dave Franco|
|Sandy Schklair||Seth Rogen|
|Juliette Danielle||Ari Graynor|
|Philip Haldiman||Josh Hutcherson|
|Carolyn Minnott||Jacki Weaver|