They say Hollywood loves movies about movies, so I guess that’s why we the people have been gifted with The Disaster Artist, another entry in the genre of self-validating cinema. Unlike award-winning but limited appeal fare like Birdman and The Artist, The Disaster Artist benefits from its mainstream stars and the growing profile of cult hit The Room to tell the story about the worst movie ever made. It’s done with obvious affection by director James Franco and his usual suspects, brother Dave, Seth Rogen, and stars like Zac Efron, Danny McBride, and Judd Apatow, who stand in for cameos.
Franco cares deeply for his characters and admires them not in spite of their wackiness but because of it. The lead oddball is Tommy Wiseau, played by Franco himself. The mysterious auteur behind The Room is someone who could easily be played for laughs. An aspiring actor of unknown age or origin, Wiseau attacks his art with abandon, always with embarrassing and unsatisfactory results. Whether he is growling his way through the Stella scene in A Streetcar Named Desire or mounting a sprawling production of his poorly written and poorly conceived movie, he is singularly focused on extracting the purest, rawest emotion out of every performance.
I have to wonder if Franco sees something of himself in Wiseau, a fellow truth-seeker willing not just to push the boundaries of convention but to crash through them. The actor has made his own mark with his unconventional behavior and try anything attitude. His off-screen pursuits include university lecturer, multimedia artist, short story writer, and painter of nudes. Adopting Wiseau’s stilted mannerisms and speech patterns and donning a stringy wig and facial prosthetics seem par for course. This may be why, for all its chances to do so, the movie never descends into mockery. Quite the opposite, a joy and earnest humor shine through in the filmmaking.
And yet, that underdog spirit keeps The Disaster Artist from ever maturing as a film. In the end, it doesn’t rise above its characters’ eccentricities. Wiseau remains a mystery, as impenetrable as ever. That might be excusable if Greg Sestero (Dave Franco), his friend and acting partner, were more than a fawning, angsty fanboy. His character is disappointing, not because of Franco the Younger doesn’t deliver; he’s rather charming as a timid actor who gets swept up in Wiseau’s delusions. It’s because the film doesn’t address in a satisfying way why Greg is so enamored with his mentor. You sympathize with his mom (Megan Mullally), and really most of the other characters – the script supervisor cum director (Rogen), Greg’s girlfriend (Alison Brie), the costume assistant (Charlyne Yi), all of whom question Greg’s association, and their own, with Wiseau.
Perhaps I just don’t have the passion for creating art. I certainly don’t presume to understand actors’ motivations for doing what they do. Maybe that’s why I need Greg’s infatuation with acting laid out more plainly. When Wiseau goads a wide-eyed Greg into performing a monologue from their coffee shop booth, I’m inclined to sympathize with the patrons rather than with the artists disturbing the peace. I wish the movie had strained less for authenticity and more for depth of character. It’s an uncritical love letter, which doesn’t make it a bad film but not a great one.
Prod: James Franco, Vince Jolivette, Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, James Weaver
Dir: James Franco
Writer: Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber
Cast: James Franco, Dave Franco, Seth Rogen, Ari Graynor, Alison Brie, Jacki Weaver, Josh Hutcherson, Megan Mullally, lots of cameos
Time: 103 min
Country: United States