The Disaster Artist: Pity Laugh, by Rita Cannon
The very first shot of James Franco’s The Disaster Artist is a close-up of Kristen Bell’s face. She’s the first in a series of celebrities who directly address the camera to tell us how much they love The Room, one of the most famous bad movies of all time and the subject of the film we’re about to see. The stars, who also include Adam Scott, Lizzy Caplan, and Danny McBride, express their love for the cult classic with rigorously faint praise like, “If you took the greatest filmmakers of all time . . . they couldn’t even come close to The Room.” Franco seems determined to convince us that, no matter what ridiculous depictions of The Room and the people who made it might follow, everything we see is born out of love. That might be true, but Franco’s film still ends up feeling like rigorously faint praise itself.
It begins in San Francisco, where aspiring actor Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) meets the intense and mysteriously accented Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) in an acting class. Shy and withdrawn himself, Greg is captivated by Tommy’s complete lack of inhibition both onstage (a performance of the famous “Stella!” scene from A Streetcar Named Desire in which Tommy throws a garbage can toward the audience and himself down a ladder) and off (dancing like an insane person in a crowded bar). The two form a fast friendship and move to Los Angeles together to chase their dreams. When acting work doesn’t come as quickly as they expected, Tommy decides they should make their own movie, and writes a histrionic, nonsensical melodrama called The Room for them to star in. Tommy also turns out to have enough money to actually make the film, though he won’t explain where this money came from.
Other things Tommy won’t explain: the origin of his vaguely European-sounding accent (he claims to be from New Orleans but come on) and his actual age (he claims to be nineteen but come on). Mysterious wells of money, lies about the past, and baffling devotion to an impossible goal are all traits that usually indicate a dangerous person — in fact, if a viewer went into The Disaster Artist knowing absolutely nothing, they’d probably assume after a few minutes that one of these men was eventually going to murder the other. But because we’re already familiar with the worst product of Tommy and Greg’s friendship, we’re free to sit back and laugh as production gets underway and quickly goes off the rails.
Franco has a ball playing Tommy Wiseau, and it often feels like the whole movie is just an excuse for him to do so. He’s fantastic, accomplishing not only an uncanny imitation but a fully realized comedic character with perfect timing and just enough glints of menace and pathos to keep you guessing. Depicting a character this bizarre could lead a director to make a rollicking comedy, an unsettling drama, or anything in between but Franco’s direction and the script by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber keep mostly to the middle. It stays in the realm of light comedy, with occasional hints at genuine sadness, but seems more interested in relaying the story of how this crazy movie got made than in mining any of its characters for nuance or complexity.
The Disaster Artist ultimately feels too small and too simple to properly contain Franco’s Tommy, much less any of its numerous side characters, all of whom are played by great and recognizable comic actors who don’t wind up getting to do very much. And the casting, it should be said, is inspired. Viewers familiar with The Room will get a real kick out of seeing who casting director Rich Delia has chosen to reenact the film’s most infamous moments, but anyone hoping to see them really dig into those roles will be disappointed. (Franco seems aware of this, and tacks a lengthy side-by-side comparison of the original scenes and their reenactments onto the end of his film for good measure.)
By the end, The Disaster Artist is largely gliding by on charm and likability — something its awkward outsider hero, ironically, could never do. In a way, it also becomes a weird inversion of its source material. While The Room is the laughably awful result of a lot of untalented misfits trying their very hardest, The Disaster Artist is made by people so talented and charismatic that even when they kind of half-ass it, the result is still pretty fun and watchable. The ending has a sheen of go-getter uplift that works on you as it’s happening, but starts to go sour as soon as the lights come up and the film’s pulsing nineties dance soundtrack fades. Yes, Tommy Wiseau has become a famous filmmaker, but the gulf between the type of filmmaker he is and the type he must have wanted to be is underlined by the very competence and polish of his own biopic. I obviously can’t speak to how the real Wiseau actually feels about embracing and profiting from his image as a kooky foreigner with a ton of misplaced confidence. Maybe he’s thrilled with it. But for the Tommy we see onscreen, the end result feels a bit like when a bunch of cool kids adopt the school weirdo as their mascot: well-intentioned and sometimes genuinely fun but ultimately still a little depressing.