Thursday, May 3, 2018

"The Disaster Artist" Explains it All

The amount of attention that the cult movie, "The Room," has received for being unusually entertaining despite also being a total trainwreck, has always struck me as odd. I've seen the film and understand why people enjoy its bizarreness, but the enthusiastic fandom that has sprung up around it and its creator, Tommy Wiseau, is more puzzling. And now along comes "The Disaster Artist," a comedic dramatization of the behind the scenes madness during the making of "The Room," to help shed some light on the allure of this notorious auteur and his immortal contribution to cinema.

Aspiring thespian Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) meets the strange, ostentatious Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) in acting classes, and the pair become friends. After moving to Los Angeles together to try and break into Hollywood, Wiseau decides to finance and make his own film, "The Room." Having no experience but plenty of money, Wiseau embarks on a lengthy film shoot marked by his tyrannical behavior, disorganized working style, and total inability to act competently. Greg tries to be supportive, but the situation inevitably boils over as Tommy's demands start to affect Greg's relationships and career.

You don't need to be a fan of "The Room" in order to enjoy "The Disaster Artist," but I think you do need to have some sympathy for and interest in the conundrum that is Tommy Wiseau. "The Disaster Artist" makes the mistake of making him a little too sympathetic, painting him as a well-intentioned wannabe who can't reconcile his own image of himself with actual reality. James Franco does a good job of mimicking Wiseau's distinctive accent and mannerisms, but he's less successful and getting across the sheer strangeness of his subject. I think demystifying Wiseau hurts the film a bit, because part of what makes him so fascinating in "The Room" is his absolute incompatibility with everything we expect from a leading man. Franco's Wiseau is memorably eccentric, but not nearly weird enough.

Franco is also clearly a fan of "The Room," and spends a considerable amount of effort recreating scenes from the movie with actors like Josh Hutcherson and Jacki Weaver playing the very mediocre actors playing the parts. I think this was meant to help emphasize just how strange much of the dialogue and production choices were, but there's far too much time spent on this in "The Disaster Artist," including a very self-satisfied final sequence that directly compares the real scenes from "The Room" with the recreations. And while I'm all for giving Tommy Wiseau his due, the overly happy ending doesn't really sit right. Or the opening scenes with various celebrities praising "The Room" for that matter.

The best scenes end up being the ones that dramatize the miserable shoot for "The Room." Most of the crew is played by familiar comedians, including Seth Rogen, as the script supervisor who ends up actually running the set, and Paul Scheer as an increasingly frustrated DP. I wish there was more time spent here, instead of on the fairly humdrum Greg and Tommy friendship. While I understand that "The Disaster Artist" was based on a book by the same name by the real Greg Sestero, and his POV is vital, his storyline results in an unfortunate amount of manufactured melodrama and pedestrian feel-good smarm that gets in the way of the comedy.

I suppose I didn't enjoy "The Disaster Artist" very much because it offers too much of an explanation for "The Room" and Tommy Wiseau when I wasn't looking for one. And while it's nice that Wiseau did manage to become a famous filmmaker to some extent, trying to paint this as some kind of happy success story also feels disingenuous. There are parts of a good film here, a dark comedy about a first time director run amok. Unfortunately, it's surrounded on all sides by a mediocre one about the power of believing in yourself and supporting your friends.

For those die-hard fans of "The Room," this should be a fun watch because there are a lot of little in-jokes and James Franco's performance is impressive. For non-fans, however, I think there's significantly less appeal. The experience of watching "The Room" is enjoyably inexplicable, and I see no point in trying to explain it. I think people would get more out of simply viewing "The Room" and enjoying the mystery.

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