For all you need to know about James Franco’s restless, peripatetic career, take a gander at his IMDB page. It lists, as of this writing, 14 projects that are either currently filming or in pre- or post-production. Five of those entries are for films he’s directing. Earlier efforts behind the camera include highfalutin’ adaptations of William Faulkner’s AS I LAY DYING and THE SOUND AND THE FURY. Yet the one that arguably represents the shortest distance between Franco and the material he’s chosen to direct is the lowfalutin’ and terrific behind the scenes comedy, THE DISASTER ARTIST.
The film chronicles the making of director Tommy Wiseau’s drama THE ROOM, which was released in two L.A. theaters in July 2003 to critical revulsion and audience indifference. It grossed an embarrassing $1,800 in its opening weekend and seemed destined for oblivion until word spread about a film that managed to reach such unimagined heights of ineptitude that audiences were packing into theaters just to laugh at it. Midnight Movie cultdom followed, a journey chronicled by co-star Greg Sestero in his book, “The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, The Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made.”
For his adaptation, Franco gifts himself with the plum lead role, and one can see why a man of large, if curious, creative appetites, would be drawn to an oddball like Tommy Wiseau. Franco, a versatile, middleweight performer, is most memorable when playing intense, if not lurid, characters. His all-in performance as Alien in Harmony Korine’s SPRING BREAKERS repped a career best, until along came Wiseau, who, quite possibly, is an actual alien. Much of the car crash appeal of THE ROOM is feasting our eyes and ears upon this mystifying Euro-creature in ill-fitting clothes who looks like a cross between Gene Simmons and Frankenstein’s monster. His long, dyed, black hair frames a slightly Neanderthal face that spews English so butchered it’s like he’s speaking in every bad American accent simultaneously. Maybe his mission to become famous is so all-encompassing that he simply doesn’t have time for definite or indefinite articles.
Franco recognizes a fellow restless dreamer so he never looks down on Wiseau or holds him up for ridicule. Yet he still manages to be so funny he’ll tear you apart (I’ll hold for your chuckle of acknowledgment) and he doesn’t even need to take the character to extremes to get there. Wiseau really is that odd. He’s also oblivious to the fact that he’s a writer, director and actor who can neither write, direct nor act.
We meet Tommy at a San Francisco acting class where he gives a convulsive, high-decibel reading of the Stella scene from A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE. Afterwards, he befriends a fellow acting student, the inhibited Greg (Franco’s brother, Dave, lightweight and aw-shucks). During a visit to the park, Greg is convinced by his strange and compelling new friend to join him in pursuing stardom in Los Angeles (where, according to Wiseau, “everybody want to be star.”) Greg should have smelled trouble, right there in the park, when Tommy clumsily tosses Greg a football and, as the sad ball wobbles towards its target, he triumphantly declares it a touchdown. Wiseau’s definition of success, as it happens, is uniquely his own.
As befitting its director, THE DISASTER ARTIST unspools with an easy energy that, if not especially polished, is always engaging. But screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (the wonderful 500 DAYS OF SUMMER) can’t fully color in the story’s bold outlines. It’s hard to find the center of a character trying so hard to hide his age, his origins and where he achieved the financial means to bankroll a $6 million film.
There’s interest in treating Wiseau like more than a Vegas buffet of mangled dialect and outrageous behavior but the lure of his comedic possibilities proves too tempting. Ditto Tommy’s relationship with Greg, which only strafes darker territory, like Tommy’s possible homoerotic interest in his creative partner and the jealous rage that results when Greg achieves any career or personal success.
The film is modestly told through Greg’s point of view and he’s a weak audience surrogate. One is tempted to think back upon the central pairing from 1988’s RAIN MAN: Raymond (Dustin Hoffman), the autistic savant who loves “The People’s Court,” was never going to change. His purpose in the film was to change his brother, Charlie (Tom Cruise) and make him a better person. For Tommy and Greg’s relationship to reach such buddy film heights proves too much to hope for. It mostly surfs along giddily as a backhanded tribute to ambitious amateurs everywhere and an introduction to Wiseau’s singular and numerous artistic failings.
Those failures are, at first, dumbfounding then maddening then downright dangerous to the cast and crew of THE ROOM (which includes Franco buddy Seth Rogen and Jacki Weaver). In pre-production, Tommy decides to shoot the film in both 35mm and digital because he doesn’t know the difference between the two and, besides, such excess means he must be creating art. He insists on shooting an alley scene on a soundstage despite there being an actual alley 50 feet away “because it’s real Hollywood movie”. As shooting plods along, Franco doesn’t shy away from Tommy’s insecurities. He lashes out when crewmembers don’t get his “vision” or want water on a stiflingly hot set. Franco’s appreciation for Tommy’s passion does not extend to making excuses for his bad behavior and the film is better for it.
Franco and DP Brandon Trost shoot both insider and iconic L.A. locations like Ernie’s Mexican restaurant and Canter’s deli. The street where Tommy rents his pied-à-terre will look familiar to any Hollywood clubgoer who parked on a side street. It shimmers at night when hopes are high. When things are falling apart, we get the same shot in flat daytime lighting that denudes the street, and the duo’s search for stardom, of all its glamour. Franco shot the première at The Crest theater in Westwood, where audiences initially howling at Tommy’s incompetent drama end up applauding one of the cinema’s great comedies. As Wiseau takes the stage to bask in the crowd’s adulation, we’re reminded that Tommy’s definition of success, as always, is uniquely his own.
There is something a bit charming about a talentless Hollywood romantic, as earnest as he is ignorant, pursuing his dream despite possessing such a rudimentary notion of what constitutes filmed art. To Tommy, the louder the performance, the more artistic it is. Hearing James Dean shriek, “You’re tearing me apart!” in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE is Tommy’s watershed moment, not for the youthful angst Dean conveyed but because Dean said it very loudly, which means it must be good. These rays of insight into the mind of a determined, delusional wannabe give the film a lift. Otherwise, THE DISASTER ARTIST is a breezy and occasionally gut-busting story of a clueless, striving industry hopeful whose desire for success is in inverse proportion to the tools he possesses to achieve it. He’d have been a great success on reality TV.