You betrayed me, James
Regular viewers will know that I have a particular fondness for The Room (no not that one), the infamous 2003 film that took the title of “Best Worst Film Ever Made” away from the likes of Troll 2, Rocky Horror Picture Show and Plan 9 from Outer Space. I, like other The Room acolytes, enjoy watching ineptly produced films and become fascinated with how some train wrecks were produced in the first place. Thankfully, the co-star of The Room, Greg Sistero, co-wrote a biography called “The Disaster Artist” about his experience in befriending The Room‘s enigmatic director, Tommy Wiseau, and detailed all the on-set shenanigans on Wiseau’s part that lead to one of the bizarre films ever produced. Several Hollywood elites were also fascinated with the story of Tommy Wiseau, and so it was inevitable that the tale get a feature length film adaptation…released by the producers of Moonlight, no less, as their primary contender for Academy Award glory (no, really). So is this a true contender for Best Picture of 2017? I hate to be the harbinger of bad news, especially for a story I was so psyched for, but this film isn’t even going to make my runners up for best of the year…
We get ahead of ourselves. The movie first introduces us to Greg Sistero (played by Dave Franco), a 19-year old going to (and failing) at acting class in San Francisco. There he becomes entranced with the fearless (and absolutely unhinged) performance of a fellow student there who insists he be called “Tommy” Wiseau (James Franco). Greg yearns to rid himself of stage fright, and so befriends Tommy in order to understand what makes the odd man tick in such a way that he has zero shame to read scripts at full volume in restaurants. Eventually, the pair resolve to pursue their dreams of becoming film actors, and move to Los Angeles since Tommy just so happens to own an apartment there (he also happens to own a home in San Francisco and drive expensive cars, but demands Greg never discuss where his possessions come from). While the pair struggle to make a break in Hollywood, Tommy decides to write, produce and direct his own film, The Room, with Greg as his co-star. Ridiculousness ensues after that.
Let me calm the Disciples of Wiseau down as they ready their pitchforks and torches by saying I really did like the acting of both of the Franco Brothers in this film. Dave Franco in particular really impressed me as I’ve usually seen him as the butt of many a joke in multiple comedies over the past half a decade. Here, as the audience surrogate, he pulls double duty as the film’s fully realized protagonist and a tour guide into the bizarre world of Tommy Wiseau’s eccentricities. It’s genuinely fun and intriguing to watch as Dave Franco initially shows how Sistero idolized Wiseau at the beginning of their relationship, how Greg kept trying to defend Tommy in front of other would-be thespians, and how their relationship soured due to the pressures caused by the director’s ludicrous demands. While his brother James will likely accrue all the accolades, I’m going to remember the younger Franco for actually making me give a damn about his character.
As for James Franco’s take as the off-putting Wiseau, I’ll join the chorus of critics in praising his performance…to a degree. I can see him getting nominated for multiple Best Lead Actor of the year, but there’s a ton of performances that outrank him. While Franco does his best to adopt many of Wiseau’s inflections and habits, I still don’t feel it’s any better than a mimic of the original Wiseau. Hell, the audiobook version of “The Disaster Artist” features Sistero giving an even better impression of Wiseau than Franco did, and Greg had to do that for several hours. Further, the make up job on Franco isn’t really anything to write home about, I’ve praised other films for some convincing prosthetic work and most of the budget for those films were more to pay actors and for paying for expensive sets. Ironically, I could still tell it was James Franco rather than Tommy Wiseau, who in real life looks like some homunculus farted out by Guillermo del Toro on a particularly bad night dealing with Thai food.
But ultimately, my biggest gripe about Franco’s performance is also my biggest critique of the film itself: he is venerating the very ground that Tommy Wiseau walks. This film is a hero worship film if there ever was one, and I really don’t like that kind of film. Franco, who’d I remind you co-wrote this film with Seth Rogen and directed it on his own, crafted a version of Tommy Wiseau that’s considerably less interesting by focusing on more “sympathetic” faults the real-life Wiseau had, namely: caring about his best friend Greg “so much” and having zero clue how to act, direct, write, or even finance a motion picture. My problem with this attitude may very well be the fact that I have read the original book that paints Wiseau in a considerably less favorable light.
According to Sistero’s words, Wiseau displayed massive narcissistic qualities constantly and was generally unpleasant to speak to for anyone that wasn’t Greg. Further, Wiseau’s behavior on the set of The Room was far from amusing and excitable, but an absolute torture to wade through with multiple instances of emotional and verbal abuse. The film only grazes the surface of this discomfort with the shooting of the film’s legendarily bad sex scene, but the accounts of Sistero and others on set that day were considerably more messed up. But that may have been the trouble for James Franco, to make his movie and portray in Wiseau in such a bad light was antithetical to Franco’s own mission to praise Tommy for his fearlessness in pursing his dreams.
That sort of positivity is fine and all for a generic comedy, but it also ignores a more damning character study that demonstrates a stranger but also more intriguing three dimensional character. Franco and Rogen’s really do sanitize a lot of what made the mystique surrounding The Room with their script, while also excusing some truly awful behavior on Wiseau’s part and even faults that Sistero had during this experience that he himself confessed in his autobiography. Instead, Franco and Rogen try to focus on two things: the relationship between Wiseau and Sistero and the wacky hi-jinks on the set of The Room. While they succeeded fine with the former, the latter is more of a mixed bag for me on account that I saw the trailers leading up to the release and many of the scenes biggest laughs were spoiled for me before watching this movie. They’re still funny, but the marketing definitely dropped the ball on the surprise factor.
As for the rest of the cast, everyone did a solid job from Alison Brie on down to Paul Scheer. Plus this film has a metric ton of cameos that can get a bit grating at times, but unlike that awful Entourage movie, it’s not that distracting. Actually, Seth Rogen was the other standout from the cast besides the Franco Brothers, portarying more of a comedic “straight-man” to Wiseau’s antics and consequently gives many of the film’s best funny moments. It’s helpful James Franco had such a seasoned and well-rounded cast, because I’m not convinced he can direct all that well. Which is strange because I’d hoped by now he would have figured out the whole “directing” thing considering he’s directed THIRTEEN other films before this including a totally straight-faced dramatic adaptation of The Sound and the Fury. No even kidding, here’s the trailer to prove this was a real thing.
Franco’s issue as a director (and a writer) is that he doesn’t know how and when to distance himself from his subjects and he films himself and his associates with the grace and subtlety of a first-year-film-student. I’ll pay him the credit that he’s as ambitious as his idol Tommy Wiseau in trying to be taken seriously as a filmmaker; but like Wiseau, Franco refuses to learn from his mistakes to become a better filmmaker. With The Disaster Artist, I see the drive, passion, and potential to create amazing art; but he lacks the execution that separates the amateur from the professionals.
Honestly, was really let down by this film, but I really shouldn’t be surprised at this point doing this critique gig for this long. It’s a decent movie with some really great performances, but I do not love this film and I sensed a greater potential this film had to be something truly memorable and special. So for the Franco Brothers’ solid portrayals, I’ll give this a low…