Film Review: James Franco Delivers a Comedic Masterpiece in The Disaster Artist
The question I’ve been asked the most since I caught the “work-in-progress” world premiere of The Disaster Artist at the SXSW Film Festival back in March has been a variation of “Will those unfamiliar with writer-director Tommy Wiseau’s bafflingly terrible, wholly entertaining film The Room be able enjoy and appreciate The Disaster Artist, the movie about the making of that cult classic?”[caption id="attachment_21281" align="aligncenter" width="1000"] Image courtesy of Music Box Theatre[/caption]
And I feel confident that the answer is “Yes,” for the same reason I believe that those who have yet to see The Room would enjoy actor Greg Sestero’s endlessly informative memoir, The Disaster Artist (co-written by Tom Bissell). Both the book and the film are not simply an account/re-creation of the making of The Room. Instead, they tell the story of two Hollywood dreamers struggling to make it as actors and becoming the greatest of friends in the process. The Room was an extension of their friendship, which the rest of the world just happened to have fallen in love with…more or less.
Adapted by the team of Scott Neustadte & Michael H. Weber (500 Days of Summer, as well as the screen adaptations of The Spectacular Now and The Fault in Our Stars), The Disaster Artist is told from Sestero’s (Dave Franco) point of view, as he struggles as most actors do early on. He meets the man who would change his life in a San Francisco acting class—the enigmatic Wiseau (James Franco, who also directs), who is so totally overplaying his scenes that he is seen as a pariah by the rest of the class. Except Sestero, who is intrigued by Wiseau and his vampire look of dyed black hair, sunglasses, nebulous accent (he insists he’s from New Orleans), and unusual style of dress.
And before long, the two are encouraging each other’s careers and plotting their conquering of Los Angeles. Sestero is played by Dave Franco, an actor who also took a while to break through, because many people only saw him as James Franco’s little brother. The resulting kismet of Greg and Dave works to the film’s advantage, whether it was intentional or not.
The first portion of the film isn’t meant to be funny, but James Franco’s performance as Wiseau is extraordinary and likely the single greatest character he’s ever created. Over the years that The Room has played regularly in Chicago (about seven years and counting), I’ve spent countless hours with both Wiseau and Sestero, together and separately, and while I would never say that Wiseau's strange accent, speech patterns or word choices are phony, there is most definitely a difference between “on-stage Tommy” and the more conversational man that I’ve spoken to one-on-one over the years. James Franco so completely embodies this latter version of Wiseau that I stopped seeing Franco almost immediately and only saw and heard the real Wiseau. For those who have never been exposed to Wiseau’s weird ramblings, Franco’s work takes on an almost Andy Kaufman-level of dedication to the character he’s inhabiting.[caption id="attachment_21282" align="aligncenter" width="1000"] Image courtesy of Music Box Theatre[/caption]
What many who see The Disaster Artist will be waiting for are the behind-the-scene glimpses into the making of The Room, and while I think you’ll fully adore the scenes prior to the production, the attention to detail of The Room sets and strange method of shooting (the film was shot both on film and digitally for no conceivable reason) are going to shock you as to their accuracy and absurdity. I’ve heard some (those who haven’t actually seen The Disaster Artist yet) describe this film as a parody, which it absolutely is not. It’s a straight-faced retelling of a moment in time that resulted in a classic film that millions adore, for whatever reason. The result is a comic masterpiece, because sticking to the facts is the funniest thing Franco and his team could possibly have done.
And while we witness actors like Seth Rogen, Allison Brie, Ari Graynor, Josh Hutcherson, Zac Efron, Zoey Deutch, Paul Scheer, Jacki Weaver, and so many more take up their positions playing real people in front of and behind the cameras, we also get to see the strain that the production had on Wiseau and Sestero, who are both clearly in over their heads as first-time filmmakers. But they continued surging forward like modern-day Ed Woods because of their shared love of the art form.
The screenplay also digs deep into Wiseau's neurosis about being seen only a villain to casting directors (when he clearly sees himself as a leading man), but not wanting Sestero to see him that way. As funny as the film gets at times, there’s a beautiful thread of emotion and sincerity running through it that almost breaks your heart by the time we get to the re-staging of the world premiere screening of The Room, where the audience can’t keep from laughing hysterically at Wiseau’s writing and thrashing performance. How does an artist recover from that? Wiseau found a way by leaning into the idea that the film was, in fact, a dark comedy. That’s how history begins.
With The Disaster Artist, James Franco is a generous director, giving as many of his actors moments to shine and build upon well-documented events, either in The Room or in Sestero’s book. To those who say the movie doesn’t reveal enough about Wiseau, let me end with this: I did a two-hour interview with him back in 2000 and spent additional hours babysitting him over a 36-hour period that included a couple of Q&A screenings, being his unnecessary, non-threatening bodyguard while he signed hundreds of autographs, and sharing a handful of meals with him.
And at the end of that 36 hours, I felt I knew less about him than when we first shook hands. Like Wiseau, The Disaster Artist is something you experience and enjoy. If you’ve never seen The Room, don’t try to figure out the phenomenon; simply enjoy witnessing the creating of it. And if you are, in fact, a Room devotee, prepare to laugh harder than you have ever laughed in your life
The films opens on screens all around Chicago, but I can’t imagine a better place to see it—especially opening weekend—than the Music Box Theatre (home to packed monthly midnight screenings of The Room for years, as well as semi-regular appearances by Wiseau and Sestero). As an added incentive to see it at the Music Box, on Friday, Dec 1st after the 7pm showing, The Disaster Artist screenwriters Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber will be on hand for a Q&A with yours truly.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cMKX2tE5Luk
Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.