Tha’ Disastah’ Ah’tist

THE DISASTER ARTIST  (2017; director: James Franco)

I’m not one of those people who is obsessed with The Room. Never threw plastic spoons at a movie screen after midnight, never took a photo with Tommy Wiseau, never think to quote it in my daily life. Yell out “You’re tearing me apart!” for a laugh and I’ll at first think that you’re referencing Rebel Without a Cause. I am what is technically called “out of it”. It’s not that I hate The Room. It’s alright. It’s a big thing with millennials, I guess. Me, I’m too busy checking nutrition labels on food products for fiber content to think much about Tommy Wiseau’s auteur statement. I saw it ten years ago and it got a couple of smirks out of me, but then I moved on. If so-called bad movies are your thing, there’s a whole world of ’em out there. As memorable as it is, Wiseau’s botched melodrama is merely another Froot Loop in a big, Tor Johnson-sized cereal box.

Furthermore, I’m of the view that the unintentional comedy of bad movies is usually the LEAST interesting thing about them. How many times can you laugh at the same instance of clumsy ADR? Or chuckle at someone’s over-acting? Or giggle at a rough special effect? How many times can you chortle until you start to get bored with feeling superior? Of infinitely greater appeal to me is the treatment of these films as strange artifacts from outside the bounds of good taste. Films that are unique, even if by accident, in a business where most things that come out are test-marketed pieces of plastic.

The Room has been a cult phenomenon since the mid-2000s. Everybody’s already made all of the jokes. Nobody’s coming up with new ones. Now is a good time for the masses to appreciate the determination and insanity that went on behind the scenes.

Thankfully, director/actor James Franco is down with that.

The Disaster Artist is a comedy because the story of the making of a terrible film that eventually becomes a success because it’s a terrible film can’t help but be a comedy. That irony is too sweet. At times though, it’s also a drama about loneliness, insecurity, friendship and the hell of low-budget filmmaking. It’s good. It’s entertaining. Moves at a snap. Gets off some great gags. I’d recommend it to anyone who’s curious about it.

But there is an elephant in the room here. And it’s called Ed Wood.

If you’ve ever seen it, you can’t NOT think about it while you’re seeing The Disaster Artist. Both films deal with similar subjects. Both are about determination in the face of constant discouragement. Both stories even start and end in about the same place.

All of that is perfectly fine and makes sense. There’s nothing wrong with any of that. More movies like Ed Wood is a good thing.

The big difference though (other than that Edward D. Wood Jr. died broke and forgotten in 1978 and never got to see himself become an icon while Wiseau is presently alive and enjoying his oddball sort of fame), is that in Ed Wood, Tim Burton sincerely celebrates Wood’s outsider status. It’s the culmination of Burton’s interest in weirdos and loonybirds, as well as his greatest movie (it’s in my personal all-time top 10, I could watch it anytime; might watch it after I’m done with this review).

By contrast, The Disaster Artist feels more like an extended comedy sketch.

It’s not that director/star James Franco doesn’t try hard enough. I have no doubt that he gave this film everything he had. His impression of Tommy Wiseau is dead-on perfect. Franco nails Wiseau’s mannerisms and mystery, his not-of-this-earth quality and his uneasy charm. Also, Franco and screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber are smart about crafting a film that might could play well for someone who’s spent the last twenty years living a life and never heard of Wiseau or The Room. You could take all of this for pure fiction and still have a good time. Franco cares just as much about the friendship between Wiseau and actor Greg Sestero (as played by Dave Franco, James’s brother) as he is about the making of the movie. We almost don’t even CARE whether or not The Room gets finished (we already know that it will). What we really want is for Wiseau and Sestero’s friendship to survive this stormy chapter.

The two met back in their struggling actor years, when, according to the film, Sestero wasn’t even good enough yet to be considered an amateur (he could barely speak in front of an audience) and Wiseau was a considerably older hothead whose idea of acting was constant histrionics that had drama teachers rolling their eyes. One’s a wallflower, one’s a tasteless showboater with zero shame. Both want the same thing: to be famous actors.

That’s all it takes for a friendship to thrive. The 19-year-old Sestero wants to learn from Wiseau’s energy. Meanwhile, the late-30s/early-40s-ish Wiseau enjoys the presence of Sestero’s youth that, through their association, allows him to convince himself that he, too, is a young hopeful. Also, Sestero is pretty much the only person in the San Francisco amateur acting scene who doesn’t look down on him.

I don’t doubt for a moment that Franco has great affection for Wiseau, but I don’t get from this film that he identifies with him. As brilliant as his impression is, I can’t tell if Franco sees himself in Wiseau.

That’s important. It’s the difference between making a lovely statement and doing a Saturday Night Live sketch.

In world where Ed Wood doesn’t exist, I might like this film more. But it does exist. And I’m not sure whether James Franco needs to be more interesting or if Tommy Wiseau, who’s only directed one feature and been coasting on it for fifteen years now, needs to be more interesting.

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