The Disaster Artist (2017)
There are few things more innately human than the desire to succeed; we’ve all felt that triumphant thrill of a victory or achievement and the fear of possible failure.
Usually, when movies are deemed a ‘failure’ they find themselves on ‘Worst Movie’ lists, in DVD bargain bins, recipients of a Golden Raspberry Award (the antithesis of the Oscars) or suffer the worst fate of all, which is being completely forgotten. It’s even harder if such films are not already in the pop culture zeitgeist — Batman & Robin (1997) is often cited as an example of a bad movie, but it’s still a Batman film. Battlefield Earth (2000) also gets referenced in such discussions, but it stars John Travolta and has the clout of Scientology looming over it. Ask anyone if they’ve heard of the German indie flick Daniel the Wizard (2004), currently sitting at #4 on IMDb’s Bottom 100, and you’ll probably just be met with curious looks.
How can it be, then, that Tommy Wiseau’s fully independent film debut, The Room (2003), would go on to become such a beloved classic of bad cinema? Not only is the movie still talked about to this very day amongst art students and Hollywood players like J.J. Abrams, Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), but it’s celebrated with regular screenings (including here in Melbourne at Cinema Nova), where once a month, seasoned fans and the uninitiated alike gather to laugh, quote wack dialogue and throw plastic spoons at the screen (no, really).
No-one truly seems to have a solid answer as to what exactly inspired such a rabid response to a movie that does so much wrong — we’re talkin’ unnatural dialogue (‘Oh hi, Doggy!’), awkward performances, lack of motivation for basically everything, subplots leading to nowhere, unnecessary use of (poor) greenscreen work, a cheap and tacky soundtrack, all wrapped up in one narcissistic package to make Wiseau a star, which, ironically, it succeeded in. There is one possible, plain answer to all of this, and that is, despite everything, it’s still just damn entertaining to watch such an epic fail.
Co-star Greg Sestero, Alien Presence (2009), would go on to make the most of his unexpected fame, doing tours and eventually writing a ripper tell-all with journalist Tom Bissell titled The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made — a must for any fan of The Room or film students learning how not to make a movie. In it, he revealed a complicated, sometimes frustrating, yet still quite empathetic friendship with the enigma that is Wiseau, who, by turns, would freely give and other times freely take without consideration. There was also a lot to genuinely commend in the gung-ho spirit of how Wiseau and Sestero approached the picture, neither truly knowing what they were doing at any given time, but making it all the same. Frankly, I admire the heck outta anyone who says they’re gonna do something big and creative, and then follow through with it.
It was this element, this very human spirit core, that I felt needed to be preserved if anyone were to dramatize the behind-the-scenes narrative of The Room, and hence why I was nervous when James Franco, Why Him? (2016), was attached to the project as director, producer and star. While I like Franco and what he’s contributed to both mainstream and indie film, I really felt that he, along with best bud Seth Rogen, The Interview (2014), would just create a loose, slapstick comedy that would consistently rip into a decidedly weird guy and his strange undertaking. I could not be more over-the-moon, then, that the resulting film, The Disaster Artist, is actually as respectful, complicated and yes, as funny as Sestero’s account, being true to the real crux of it all — two unlikely friends who, despite the odds, actually make something that people remember.
After a brief prologue with Hollywood heavyweights — such as actress Kristen Bell, Bad Moms (2016), and filmmaker Kevin Smith, Clerks (1994) — who share their unbridled love for The Room, the clock is wound back to the very beginning of Greg Sestero’s (Dave Franco) initial encounter with Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) at an acting class in San Francisco. Although handsome, Sestero has serious stage fright and doubts, the 19-year-old aspiring actor coming across as stiff in his attempt to recite a scene, whereas the rather odd-looking Wiseau is unafraid of displaying his over-the-top emotions, even if his botched performance — of the legendary “Stella!” scene from 1951’s A Streetcar Named Desire — is ripped to shreds by his drama professor (Melanie Griffith).
Drawn to Tommy’s wild nature, pretty boy Greg — who Wiseau eventually dubs ‘Babyface’ — soon finds himself in a whirlwind, eventually moving to Los Angeles with his strange new pal to chase their Hollywood aspirations. When it appears that neither Tommy or Greg are quite living out the experience they dreamed of, they hatch the idea of making their own feature film, Wiseau pouring much of himself, his worldview and his passion into an often-bizarre story he would name The Room.
Not since Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994) has there been a film about a film that manages to be a loving homage, an inspiring ode to the ‘can do’ spirit and a hilarious comedy in its own right, one that celebrates the central ‘bromance’ that binds it all together. Full credit for developing these themes and somehow distilling the essence of the many crazy backstage moments goes to screenwriting duo Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber — the pair no strangers to adaptations, having tackled the melancholic young adult novels The Fault in Our Stars (2014) and Paper Towns (2015).
While Tommy Wiseau is very much the front and center star, Neustadter and Weber wisely maintain Sestero’s point-of-view, as he is the most identifiable of the central chums, writers injecting enough intimate knowledge to illuminate the complicated personality of Wiseau and elicit some degree of humanity. If there is one minor quib I had stemming from this aspect, it’s the knowledge gap between the end of production and the movie’s premiere — I’d have loved to even just briefly seen a montage demonstrating how Wiseau worked with his editor and music composer, but true to real life, Sestero wasn’t present to witness any of this process.
Building from the solid script, director and star James Franco has enlisted a very dedicated crew in production designer Chris L. Spellman, This Is the End (2013), and cinematographer Brandon Trost, Neighbors (2014), who have clearly gone above and beyond in order to recreate the look and feel of the original ‘disasterpiece.’ If there are any doubts about this, one only needs to stay during the end credits where side-by-side comparisons illustrate just how close they were able to get — even the actors mostly hit the same beats. Speaking of which …
On the casting front, it’s a mix of well blended talent and the distractingly familiar; Seth Rogen can get away with playing uh Seth, I mean ‘Sandy’ the script supervisor, as can the ever-alluring Alison Brie, How to Be Single (2016), as Sestero’s girlfriend Amber, given that their real life characters aren’t as well known as the cast of The Room. Dave Franco, Now You See Me (2013), unfortunately lets the team down by not really putting much effort into becoming the ‘real’ Greg Sestero. It’s the same Dave voice, traits and mostly, look. This becomes all the more apparent every time he plays off his older brother James, who, despite not looking or sounding anything like Tommy Wiseau, has pulled off something of an immaculate personification. He isn’t ‘trying’ to be Wiseau, he is Wiseau; heck, he even directed the film in his Tommy persona. A post credit cameo featuring the actual Tommy only further cements the astonishing work of James.
There’s also a lovely low-key performance by Jacki Weaver, Silver Linings Playbook (2012), who plays the actress Carolyn and, while Ari Graynor, The Sitter (2011), initially doesn’t seem right as Juliette, aka ‘Lisa’ in The Room, her spot-on voice and mannerisms quickly dissipate any doubts. And oh, there are a ton of amusing cameos, the highlight being a deliciously over-the-top Zac Efron who portrays The Room’s beenie-wearing drug dealer, Chris-R.
While The Room will remain a monumental failure, albeit an endlessly quotable and entertaining one, The Disaster Artist is a pure winner from start to finish, hitting all the right notes, which are delivered with reverence and passion. It’s warm, side-splitting, frustrating and inspiring, sometimes all at the same time and, while stranger-than-fiction, if we are to believe Sestero’s account and the intense research that Franco and co. did, it’s very true to life.
Everyone involved should be proud — I’m sure in his own way, even Wiseau would be pleased with the ironic way that this project has brought him to the table of A-listers. I’m calling it here — Tommy Wiseau as a special guest of the 2018 Golden Globes.
As the saying goes, if you can’t be famous, be infamous.
4.5 / 5 – Highly Recommended
Reviewed by Steve Ramsie