Film Review: The Disaster Artist

Not a disaster at all.
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Even if you’ve never seen The Room, chances are you’ve heard of it. Written, directed and produced by the enigmatic Tommy Wiseau, who also stars, The Room was released in a single theatre in Los Angeles in 2003. In the years since, it’s enriched countless people’s lives…though not in the way Wiseau expected. Dubbed “the worst movie ever made,” The Room found its audience on the midnight circuit, where a Rocky Horror-esque culture of audience participation sprung up around some of the film’s weirder moments. There are a lot of those. You can’t really understate how strange The Room is. And as detailed in a tell-all book by Tom Bissell and Wiseau’s best friend and co-star Greg Sestero, things were pretty damn weird behind the scenes as well. That story—of a man determined to make it in Hollywood despite a clear lack of talent—serves as the backbone for the funny, offbeat and surprisingly sweetThe Disaster Artist.

The film is a clear labor of love for director James Franco, who stars (along with his brother Dave Franco, playing Sestero) as Wiseau. Everything about the performance is pitch-perfect: the slurred, vaguely Eastern European accent, the aggressive naïveté ("It's not going to happen for you. Not in a million years." “But after that?”), the tendency to wear multiple belts at one time. But what comes across most in the elder Franco’s performance—and what saves The Disaster Artist from being a cruel exercise in mockery and second-hand embarrassment—is this: You can tell James Franco really loves Tommy Wiseau.

Or, at the very least, admires him tremendously. In the hands of Franco and screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, The Disaster Artist becomes not a story of a buffoon (as Wiseau is often characterized) oblivious to the fact that he’s genuinely terrible at the one thing he wants to do. Instead, Wiseau is presented as almost a heroic figure, the Sisyphus of modern Hollywood, someone who responds to the myriad rejections encountered by every Hollywood hopeful with a dogged determination not to give up, even when he probably should. In The Disaster Artist, Wiseau is lacking in self-awareness, often selfish and a terrible filmmaker. He’s also fearless, guileless and loyal.

It would be easy for Wiseau to come across as a cipher, given how little we know about the guy. (The Disaster Artist mines much comedy from the fact that nobody knows where Wiseau’s from, how he got his money or how old he is.) But Franco imbues the role with real emotion. Wiseau may be space alien-bizarre, but Franco taps into the key element of his personality that just about everyone can relate to: the desire to achieve something, to be respected, to have friends.

Hollywood has always been obsessed with touting its own mythology. The plucky go-getter with a dream can make it in the City of Angels if they just try hard enough! Conversely, there’s the subset of films that revels in Hollywood’s more nightmarish qualities: how it’s a haven for abusers and creeps that draws in pretty young things by the thousands, only to spit them out again when they’ve outlived their usefulness. The Disaster Artist emerges as a vital, necessary bridge between perfect, pure Hollywood and its evil twin. Tommy Wiseau—not pretty or young, though the term “plucky” arguably still applies—achieves his dream of touching people’s lives through film. And if they’re laughing at him and not with him, well, that’s more than most people achieve, isn’t it? That’s painful, but it’s positive, too. It’s walking that line that takes The Disaster Artist beyond cringe comedy to an unexpectedly touching tribute to a 21st-century icon.

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