(directed by James Franco, lover of Japanese body pillows, 2017)
Never trust anyone who calls a movie "so bad it's good."
A movie can be so bad, it's fascinating. Or so bad, it's educational (as a case study in what NOT to do). Or so bad it was just a waste of your time. There's a certain arrogance, though, in calling something so bad, it's good. You assume superiority over a work of art you profess to hate, but then insult the artist by welcoming it into your life anyway.
Hundreds of decisions spread over months, or even years, lead to a finished movie. That one even exists is an act of divine intervention. That some are genuinely entertaining, though, is a direct result of those conscious choices. And if a director you've never met helped you enjoy yourself, keep the scorn at bay. To bring complete strangers a sense of joy means something.
Made on a self-funded $6 million budget and wackadoo delusion, Tommy Wiseau's "The Room" is widely considered among the worst films ever made - the title that launched a thousand midnight screenings and plastic spoons to be swept up later by an irritated custodial staff. Scenes drift out of focus. Subplots are raised and discarded at random. And the green screen. My god, the green screen.
Such a movie might normally vanish to the ether. But what makes "The Room" special, which director/star James Franco acutely understands in "The Disaster Artist," is Wiseau's willingness to put himself OUT THERE. Why let pesky details like zero talent or experience stand in the way when you have to-the-marrow passion? For great art to work, you gotta mean it. Wiseau meant it. And so does Franco.
As a chronicle of the making of "The Room," one can imagine "The Disaster Artist" veering in a dozen wrong directions. A mockery of Wiseau and his merry band of misfits, pointing and laughing with a cruel sneer. A laundry list of famous movie clips you know from YouTube, reenacted by A-list Hollywood stars. An elevation of Wiseau to some kind of misunderstood, messianic genius.
Instead, guided by Franco as director, "The Disaster Artist" finds the most welcome of grooves: a full-throated howler of a comedy that also hides a real, beating heart. Yes, "The Room" is a ridiculous gotdang mess. Yes, Wiseau probably had no business near a movie set. But there's something to be said for the corny notion of recognizing your dream and pursuing it. Through such a silly foundation, Franco crafts a sweet, hilarious, and improbably moving study of the redemptive power of art.
One key choice made by Franco and screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber is to ultimately tell the story not through Wiseau's eyes, but his friend and "Room" costar Greg Sestero, basing their screenplay off his memoir of the same name. Opening in 1998 San Francisco, Sestero (younger brother Dave Franco) is just one of thousands of anonymous, wannabe movie stars, dropping money on acting classes. It is there he meets the mysterious Tommy Wiseau (elder Franco) going for broke on a scene from "A Streetcar Named Desire." Nothing about Wiseau resembles a rational human being, from the garbled speech to the copious number of belts. In any case, Wiseau and Sestero become fast friends and eventually move to Los Angeles with starry-eyed dreams of making it big. When the leading roles just don't come, Wiseau writes his own script, and history, against all odds, was born.
The easiest, and not unwarranted, companion piece to "The Disaster Artist" is Tim Burton's "Ed Wood," down to their shared DNA of gentle but loving lampooning of cinematic hucksters. But while Burton's movie filtered everything through Wood's perspective, "The Disaster Artist," relegates Wiseau to an enigmatic shadow. How old is this man? Where is he from? How did he earn his seemingly bottomless pit of wealth? What gave him the gall to make a movie in the first place?
Franco doesn't answer these questions because he's not even interested in asking them. One of the great pleasures of watching "The Room" is its vast, murky mystery, wondering how much, if any of this, was done intentionally. Franco leaves these mysteries unsolved, and I've read some criticisms of "The Disaster Artist" that by keeping Wiseau a cipher and not delving into what makes him tick, the movie loses its emotional wallop. This seems to miss the point. By framing the story around Sestero - his meeting and subsequent encounters with Wiseau, his experiences on the set of "The Room, his increasing frustrations with this unknowable friend - "The Disaster Artist" sidesteps how an accidental work of art happened and instead shows how an accidental work of art can come from anywhere (to paraphrase "Ratatouille).
No, we don't learn much more about Tommy Wiseau than when we started. No, we don't gain any insight in how he conceived his masterwork, although Franco does take a definite stance on whether or not he intended "The Room" to be a comedy. Instead, "The Disaster Artist" serves up something sweeter: two friends coming together in shared ambition to bring something into the world that wasn't there before.
While most of us are content in repeating the same pop culture references to define ourselves, there's something to be said for a drive to CREATE.
Despite these ambitions, make no mistake, "The Disaster Artist" is also one scorcher of a comedy, delivering some of the heartiest belly laughs of the year. Some come from side-eyed callbacks to "The Room" itself, although you don't need to be an expert on that movie to enjoy this one. Others come from the ridiculous portrayals of Wiseau's movie set, from his insistence to shoot everything simultaneously on digital and film to constructing a private bathroom for himself hidden only by a curtain, despite there being a working one already in the building.
But mostly, the laughs and the power come from the yin and yang performances of the two Franco brothers. As Sestero, Dave Franco is all smiles and heart, never quite understanding this new person dominating his life, but being bowled over by his enthusiasm just the same. Dave's strength, especially compared to his brother, has always been his open-faced sincerity, and "The Disaster Artist" plays that to its advantage in the final scenes as "The Room" debuts to rapturous scorn and Sestero reminds Wiseau that, intentional or not, he created something that made a lot of people happy.
Meanwhile, as Tommy Wiseau, James Franco is a flat-out force of nature, summoning all his strengths as a comedian, performance artist, and Oscar-nominated actor capable of generating real pathos. From the moment he bellows, "Stella!" in acting class during the film's opening moments, it's clear that this is James Franco SHOWING UP. The slurred, mumbled speech, the loopy mannerisms, the omnipresent lack of eye contact with most other people. These are not sets of quirks, and they're certainly not Franco doing a mere Tommy Wiseau impression (he could probably do a better one, but what would be the point?).
Franco builds a character here from the ground up, diving into the role with heedless abandon and unflappable commitment, but also a quiet tenderness. Take a moment in the park near the end of the movie when Sestero requests - DEMANDS - that Wiseau reveal one thing about himself that's true. Wiseau sticks to the lie that he's in his 20s and from New Orleans, but watch the crinkle in Franco's eyes as the rehearsed words come out for maybe the hundredth time. Sestero is offering genuine human connection, and because of the person he built himself into, Wiseau either can't or doesn't know how to accept.
That's a complete performance, the best of Franco's career.
As a crowd-pleasing comedy, "The Disaster Artist" is an absolute showstopper. As a how-the-sausage-is-made portrayal of a movie set in chaos, it's a hoot. But ultimately, it's a treatise for not only the importance of art, but the importance of all art. The sublime and the ridiculous. The high and the low. People far too often bind themselves with irony in how they process art. It's easier to make fun of something than to love it. It's easier to hold something at a distance than to invite it into your life.
"The Room" might have inspired scores of hate screenings around the world. But "The Disaster Artist" reminds us how that doesn't mean it doesn't matter.