Note: I wrote this review of The Disaster Artist over a year and a half ago, after I saw a preview screening of the film. I watched it on opening night to learn that not only was it not substantially changed, not a frame other than the opening and closing credits was touched. On a second viewing, I'm a lot colder on the film, but I stand by the feelings I express in this review. It just doesn't have a lot to offer other than a one-time gimmick. Once that's used up, there's no reason to return to that well whatsoever.
Director: James Franco
Cast: James Franco, Dave Franco, Sharon Stone
Run Time: 1 hour 45 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
I’m a huge fan of oddball auteur Tommy Wiseau’s bad movie masterpiece The Room. So much so that it’s not even listed on my index in the section that’s sorted by rating, because that would have broken the system entirely, not to mention my credibility. I’m also a huge fan of Greg Sestero’s behind-the-scenes book The Disaster Artist, which is hands-down the most fascinating nonfiction book I’ve ever read. It’s not only an insight into the twisted mind that birthed The Room, but the story of a man rattling against the bars of the cage of normalcy who would eventually become that twisted mind's best friend.
So when I heard they were adapting that very book into a movie, I was mighty intrigued. When it was announced that stoner comedy icon by day/berserk artistic soldier by night James Franco would be directing, I was concerned, but realized there’s hardly anybody better to bring that madcap, deranged nightmare to life.
I was wrong.
You’re tearing me apart, James Franco!
In The Disaster Artist, Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) is a young aspiring actor in San Francisco who meets the mysterious, ineffably accented, appallingly dressed Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) in an acting class. The shy young man comes to respect Tommy’s bravado and total lack of elf-awareness. They become fast friends and move to L. A. to pursue their dreams. However, Greg’s success at finding an agent (Sharon Stone) and a girlfriend (Alison Brie) makes Tommy dangerously jealous.
When they decide that the industry isn’t ready for them, they agree that they should make their own movie. They assemble a crew (Seth Rogen, Paul Scheer, Charlyne Yi…) and a cast (Ari Graynor, Josh Hutcherson, Zac Efron, Jacki Weaver…) with Tommy’s bottomless pit of money and it’s off to the races!
Oh hi, cult classic.
At its heart, The Disaster Artist is about the relationship between Greg and Tommy more than it’s about The Room itself. This is as it should be. And as a movie adaptation of said story, some details are changed to smooth the narrative along. This is also as it should be. As much a fan as I am of the book, I understand and respect that certain choices had to be made when adapting the material. However, the end product is both completely unrecognizable as the original true story and kilotons less interesting. The quasi-horror story of a dark, twisted friendship between a bipolar lunatic and an insecure ingénue has been transformed into a wacky, whitewashed buddy picture about never giving up on your dreams.
It lurches so hard to fit a three-act structure that it’s gut-churning. And again, to make myself clear, I’m not upset that they streamlined the casting process or combined multiple characters into one or cut out the subplot about Retro Puppet Master (OK, maybe I’m a teensy bit upset about that one). I’m upset they capsized years of bizarre behavior, manipulation, homoeotic tension, and drama in favor of a bog standard “girlfriend jealousy,” man-child, Apatow-approved plot structure, which they go ahead and totally ignore in the third act, arriving at zero resolution for either character. And this is not a “true stories don’t have endings” situation. By this point, everything true about this story is rotting under a stack of old TV Guides at the landfill.
I guess they were too chicken to commit to their story. Cheeeep, cheepcheepcheep.
That’s not to say that The Disaster Artist isn’t funny. It completely misses the point of its own story but it still has the juice to be pleasantly amusing. It’s not an uproarious affair, but there is plenty of that awkward comedy that’s rampant in The Room itself, especially in any scene where Tommy has to interact with people out in the real world. It certainly helps that James Franco completely disappears into the role, delivering a pitch-perfect imitation of Wiseau’s haunting strangeness. His comic timing is on point, and frankly he saves the movie from itself, the cuckoo center of the maelstrom of muddled plot elements.
Franco has also assemble a veritable A-Team of essential comic actors for lightning quick cameos, though – mysteriously – some of them (including Dirty Grandpa-redeemer Jason Mantzoukas) aren’t even given any real gags to work with. My favorite would be John Early, who plays a major agent's assistant and needs to get noticed by more people immediately. But frankly, the non-Tommy/Greg cast of The Room are given short shrift in a series of rapidfire scenes that blast through the actual making of the film. Only Ari Graynor (as Juliette Danielle, who played the blonde temptress Lisa) and Zac Efron (as Dan Janjigian, who played the psychotic drug dealer Chris-R.) make any sort of impression as the film completely ignores them. Seth Rogen also livens up several scenes from the peanut gallery, eking comedy around the edges.
To be completely honest, the film’s only acting liability is Dave Franco, who puts almost no effort into crafting a distinct personality out of Greg Sestero. Where James is playing Tommy Wiseau, Dave is just playing Dave Franco, coasting on his looks, his stock mannerisms, and a truly pitiful fake beard that looks like he got tarred and feathered by Fozzie Bear.
You are NOT my favorite customer, Dave.
The film has its ups and its downs, but it’s only half bad. It feels more like a home movie of celebrities hanging out than an actual work of cinema, but there’s certainly a place for that. I do wish it spent more time on the process of creating The Room (in fact, the longest segment of the film is the totally pointless premiere scene, where we get to sit with the actors and watch their weird facsimiles of actual scenes from The Room for what feels like hours. I’ve already seen The Room. I don’t need to watch fans watching a fan recreation of it, celebrities or not), because that’s where the more interesting story lies (in this watered-down version, anyway). And as it stands, if you haven’t actually seen the film, you’ll be flummoxed by the whole process. But I don’t mind spending 90 minutes with these people in this setting. If you’re a Room acolyte, seek this movie out. If not, leave your stupid wallets in your pocket.
TL;DR: The Disaster Artist is an oddball biopic that misses the story mark but lands the humor.
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