Monday, May 20, 2024

‘The Disaster Artist’ Is A Love Letter To The Movies

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The Disaster Artist is an ode to the dreamers and doers. It is also a giant slobbering love letter to Tommy Wiseau’s  film The Room. How you feel about odes to dreamers and doers and Tommy Wiseau will most likely affect how you feel about The Disaster Artist.

For the uninitiated, The Disaster Artist is a book (unread by me) by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell about the making of The Room, one of the worst movies ever made. The writer, producer, and star is the infamous and enigmatic Tommy Wiseau. The book and movie details how Sestero and Wiseau met, became friends, moved to Los Angeles to pursue their dreams of acting, and eventually how they made one of the most beloved and most watched worst films ever made.

The way people love The Room is more the way people love The Rocky Horror Picture Show than how most ‘worst movies of all time’ are received. People shout out the lines , dress up in character, and throw plastic spoons at the screen. The Room as a character in of itself is fascinating simply for it’s hold and love of it’s audience.

Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) himself is a character out of the mind of P.G. Wodehouse, almost. An inexplicably wealthy man whose entire behavioral system seems to be in direct and constant war with society’s expectations. His strange accent—“It’s from New Orleans”—strange and obvious lies about his age—“I’m as old as you are”—all make for an intensely lonely man desperate for friendship.

The problem is that Wiseau is a narcissistic egomaniac prone to emotional abuse and fits of mad jealousy. In any other character this would be fascinating, and in some ways it is. But Franco is too set on nailing Wiseau’s particular affected speech patterns and bizarre movements. We spend most of the movie watching Franco pretending to be Wiseau. The moments in which Franco disappears entirely are few, though when they happen it’s truly miraculous and makes you appreciate Franco’s talent.

So much of The Disaster Artist is intent on showing us what a wacky and bizarre man Wiseau is. Wiseau is shown willfully and intentionally sabotaging  his best friend’s Greg Sestero’s (Dave Franco) career and personal relationships. His abuse of his cast and crew, both physically and emotionally, are forgiven by the third act. He’s all but absolved because as Sestero tells him “It’s your vision.”  The narrative or the script, by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, don’t seem at all interested in saying anything remotely critical of the strange man from nowhere.

The Disaster Artist tries to pass itself off as a love letter to the dream of making movies; a modern Ed Wood for the millennial set. Except there’s a fatal flaw in the movie’s sonnet of stopping at nothing until your dreams have been achieved: Tommy Wiseau is unfathomably wealthy. Yes, he is rejected by everyone but in the end he just buys the equipment and makes the movie himself, because he can.

Greg Sestero, the long suffering friend and ally of Wiseau, stands by in awe. “You just go for it. I really admire that.” This sentiment by itself is true. There is an admirability to just saying screw it and making your dream happen. My issue is the hero isn’t really risking anything. He’s wealthy before he makes The Room and he’s wealthy after. Sure he’s risking personal reputation, but he’s made it perfectly clear he doesn’t give a damn what anybody thinks. “I don’t care. I just do it.” From time to time it’s hinted that he is affected by how society ostracizes him. But Tommy so easily sabotages other people’s relationships that he finds threatening to his and Greg’s, it’s hard to believe anything he says or does at all, much less feel sympathy for him.

Dave Franco plays Greg Sestero as an earnest wide-eyed dreamer eager to do anything. Tommy is a tempest Greg all but invites into his life after witnessing an astounding display of ‘acting’ during an acting class. The two become friends as Tommy draws Greg’s confidence and talent out to the surface. It’s an interesting relationship with dark undertones. To James Franco’s credit, he leaves this part a mystery; he never spells it out, but leaves it up for us to wonder about.

Dave Franco’s Sestero is mostly one-note. As much as James Franco’s Wiseau is largely an impersonation, rather than a performance, it’s still much more nuanced and internal. Dave Franco’s Sestero exists to at once condemn Tommy while at the same time encourage and help him.  Odd that the role of the author should be so shallow and dull, but I guess compared to Wiseau most people come off as such.

The Disaster Artist wants to be a celebration of film making, but seems more interested in showing us The Room some three times before the credits roll. I’m not exaggerating. We see them make The Room, so we see the same scene multiple times. For the finale we watch Wiseau, Sestero, and others watch The Room. Finally just before the credits roll, Franco shows us side by side comparisons of The Disaster Artist and The Room. Rarely has a movie seemed as narcissistic as its protagonist.

James Franco directed The Disaster Artist, and he is probably the best choice for the material. He brings a loving sideways grin to the behind the scenes story. It’s the type of grin that comes from knowing the foolishness, and appreciating the daring in it all the while. Franco and his camera man, Brandon Trost, film The Disaster Artist with clever yet subtle low angle and side angle shots.  The technique allows for a documentary feel without using a shaky cam. It also allows for classic and popular cinematic flourishes such as montages and slow motion. The result being that we are made to feel as if we are being gifted a peek behind the veil.

The Disaster Artist is so brimming with cameos, great and small, I had to remind myself this wasn’t The Muppet movie. The result is a literal all star cast of people talking about how much they love ‘this horrible movie.’ Here’s the thing: Why? Maybe I’m asking a question that shouldn’t be answered. All I know is it’s a question I couldn’t stop asking. Why is The Room more beloved and more celebrated than say Troll 2 or The Apple? Both were made by larger than life personalities and also have a large and devoted following.

I get the sense Franco doesn’t really know or care. He loves The Room and that is enough. It’s just not enough for me.

Images courtesy of A24

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