Review: The Disaster Artist
I hope people who love movies get a chance to make a bad movie one day.
There’s a distinct feeling in being involved in a low-budget film production, whether you’re acting in it, writing, directing, or just moving equipment around; that feeling you’re creating something of genius when you know in your gut it could be (and most likely is) garbage, and then having it screened for friends and strangers.
I wrote and directed a handful of terrible short film way back in the day (don’t look for them, please), essentially tricking a cast and crew into reciting lines I wrote while capturing images on video I had conceived in my head. Filmmaking is a weird, yet gratifying experience, and few films themselves accurately capture that sense of, “Oh shit, we’re making a movie!” on screen. Ed Wood is the last one that did it exceptionally well, filled with overflowing passion for filmmaking and (as corny as it sounds) the friends you make along the way.
The Disaster Artist isn’t as heartfelt as Tim Burton’s profile of the maligned-yet-beloved director Ed Wood. James Franco’s take on Tommy Wiseau and the making of cult hit The Room has more bite; no friends are made—if there was a ‘director’s jail’, Wiseau’s antics on and off set should put him away for a long stretch. Yet, the fact that this gang of misfits managed to make the ‘Citizen Kane of bad movies’ shows just how moviemaking is special; to be able to fearlessly put yourself out there on something that is very clearly a piece of crap, only to have it explode in a phenomenon beyond your wildest dreams.
Franco serves as director of The Disaster Artist and lead actor, portraying Wiseau—the long-haired, euro-enigma, actor-writer-producer extraordinaire(ish) who keeps saying he’s from New Orleans and in his twenties when he’s clearly not, on all counts. The story begins with Wiseau meeting Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) in 1998, both struggling actors who immediately connect over their mutual passion for the art of the performance and James Dean. Sestero is intrigued by Wiseau’s confidence on stage and the man himself, who shies away from any mention of his past. James Franco disappears into the role, hiding behind the web of long, dark hair, makeup, and that distinct accent that’s impossible to place. Instead of making him a caricature, there’s depth in Franco’s Wiseau. An especially poignant scene involves the wannabe actor hounding a big-deal producer at a restaurant; the scene is hilarious, and Franco adds a layer of headstrong, dopey optimism in each muddled response. “Not in a million years,” the producer says. Wiseau is quick to answer, “But after that?”
Sestero and Wiseau struggle to make it in Hollywood, until they ask, “Why don’t we make our own movie?” Wiseau writes the script and sets himself up as director and lead actor—he has all the power here, serving as the producer, putting up the budget thanks to his mysteriously-acquired wealth. Sestero, offered a co-starring role in Wiseau’s film, absolutely can’t pass this up. He really can’t. Wiseau is his friend and roommate, and he tries his best to hide his bewilderment after he reads the script for The Room. From there, Sestero is just along for the ride as the temperamental Wiseau makes the movie he thinks will make both of their careers.
We’re then witness to the director’s antics. He walks into a film equipment rental shop and instead of renting the equipment, he requests to buy it all. It’s one of the most absurd things anyone who knows the slightest thing about moviemaking can hear—the magnitude of Wiseau’s ineptitude is only equal to his persistence, making for some brilliant absurdist comedy. The film is perhaps the funniest of the year; the script is based on the book by the same name by Greg Sestero, recounting his so-crazy-it’s-true experience making The Room. Wiseau’s odd ticks and catchphrases get half of the laughs, while the rest come from the dramatization of real-life, behind-the-scenes stories from the making of the film.
The film drifts back and forth, smartly, as both comedy and character piece. In between the laughs, there’s a moment that feels all too real—an older actress on the set of The Room is asked why she’s in this clearly, very terrible movie, and she responds that she’s an actress and she wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s a thinking I fully understand, having found performers to star in my dime-budget movies, each driven by that same passion. It’s this empathy that The Disaster Artist clearly understands, through all the ridiculousness.
In a scene that cuts especially deep in 2017, Wiseau rages on set, embarrassing the lead actress during the filming of a sex scene. It’s a painful watch, only saved by the actress’ resilience and dedication to just get through it. Wiseau never becomes a straight-out villain because we know he’s brimming with jealously and envy, conflicted with Sestero pulling away from him after finding some small success in Hollywood and a new girlfriend. While Wiseau is clearly an asshole who doesn’t deserve a pass for his inappropriate behavior, there’s a complexity expressed there as we see he wants what we all want—love and attention, which makes The Room’s animalistic cries/catchphrases surprisingly poignant. “You’re tearing me apart, Lisa!” works on several levels now—Wiseau’s ineloquence is Wiseau’s inability to express himself and his obsession with the male actor bravado boils into regrettable solitude.
The two friends have a falling out, but come together for the premiere of The Room, and it goes how you’d expect. But, Wiseau, ever the opportunist, says he was part of the joke all long. It’s not the outcome he wanted, but one he accepts—to get a rise out of an audience, one way or another, is another indescribable feeling.
The Disaster Artist then ends in an odd, side-by-side montage of scenes from The Room and the frame-by-frame recreations done by Franco and company. It comes off as a bit too congratulatory, but maybe Franco is saying making The Room was a feat in and of itself. Making a film is a struggle and the near-perfect replication of those scenes looked to be a struggle, too. Sweat, tears, passion—you may not see it right away in something as ridiculous as The Room, but The Disaster Artist manages to express the struggle in relatable way, whether you’ve ever picked up a camera or not.