Movie Review: The Disaster Artist
By Matthew Huntley
December 12, 2017
The best thing James Franco does with The Disaster Artist is make it accessible to viewers who've never heard of The Room or its eccentric director, Tommy Wiseau. This strategy prevents it from becoming just another esoteric, Hollywood in-joke. Instead, it thrives as a consistently funny, full-fledged comedy that's also, at times, a touching human drama about friendship and determination. To think that the story behind "The Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made" would inspire such a well-rounded and often riotous film as this seems crazy, but craziness is par for the course when it comes to anything involving Tommy Wiseau.
So just who is Tommy Wiseau? He's the bizarre and puzzling writer-director-producer-star of the notoriously awful yet much-beloved, The Room, a low-budget, unintentionally funny soap opera-like film that initially went nowhere when it was released back in 2003 but has since become a cult film legend, not least because it simply refused to go away. I was actually in Los Angeles the summer The Room came out, interning at The Hollywood Reporter, and my first assignment was to contribute to an article about independent filmmakers who were self-promoting their own projects. And who should I interview? One Tommy Wiseau.
I spoke with Tommy only briefly on the phone (he was very polite), sifted through his film's marketing materials, watched the The Room trailer, and mentioned in the article how artists like him were taking matters into their own hands to get their work seen. And I, like so many driving up Highland Avenue into Hollywood, saw the billboard for The Room, featuring an extreme closeup of what appeared to be a distorted image of a drunken man with long, black hair and a pair of lazy, multi-colored eyes. No offense to Tommy, but his image looked like a mug shot and I probably wasn't alone in that I didn't know what to think of it. The only thing I was certain of was there's no way this film was ever going to find an audience. How could it, when the poster alone was such a turn-off?
And for a long time The Room played but nobody was watching it, yet it stuck around for quite some time, as did the infamous billboard. Then, a remarkable thing started to happen. Word traveled about just how weird, disconnected, nonsensical, highly sexual and random the narrative was, and the film started to gain a loyal following for these reasons. Over the years, its wildfire spread and now it routinely sells out midnight shows around the world, joining the ranks of other cult favorites like The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Clue. It's movies like these, we're told by a handful of celebrities at the beginning of The Disaster Artist, that people remember.
So if you haven't seen The Room, I recommend you do, because it's one of those films that has to be seen to be believed. However, it speaks to Franco's abilities as a storyteller that this need not be a prerequisite to enjoying The Disaster Artist. Franco's film is hilarious and outrageous all on its own, thanks mostly to the goofy and perplexing character Franco creates. He plays Tommy in the film and his portrayal of the colorful, often creepy figure is impeccable, from Tommy's inexplicable accent and random laugh to his boisterous voice and imposing physicality and ego. Franco gives his character the same towering presence the real Tommy possesses. But his performance and embodiment of this man would be just as captivating even if there was no real Tommy, and the film would be just as appealing, which is a sign of three things: Franco has made the film with thought instead of haste; Franco cares about telling a worthwhile story; and Franco can be a superb actor in the right role.
The plot of The Disaster Artist isn't exactly earth-shattering. It's essentially an underdog story, or perhaps underdogs story. When it opens, Tommy is living and taking acting lessons in San Francisco. We first see him perform a freakish rendition of Stanley Kowalski from A Streetcar Named Desire, and his energy and enthusiasm catch the attention of Greg (Dave Franco), another struggling actor who asks Tommy to perform a scene with him. Tommy agrees, and following their impromptu performances in a crowded diner, the two quickly strike up a friendship.
After visiting the death site of James Dean (whom Franco also portrayed in a TV movie), Tommy insists he and Greg move to Los Angeles to become movie stars. So they drive south, stay in Tommy's Hollywood apartment, and spend several months trying to make it in Tinseltown. And the entire time, and even to this day, Greg never learns where Tommy is from (Tommy claims New Orleans), how old he is (he says mid-20s), or where he gets all his money. But no matter, the two vow to never give up on their dreams, and when the industry refuses them, Greg suggests they simply make their own movie. Thus, Tommy concocts The Room and the long, painful production on the worst movie of all time begins.
One of the joys of The Disaster Artist is simply watching others react to Tommy, because they're all thinking the same thing we are, that not only is this guy exceptionally weird but also, as a filmmaker, he does everything wrong (“Has he ever even seen a movie?” the cinematographer asks). And yet, every decision Tommy makes he makes with passion, confidence and authority, and so nobody really argues with him. After all, the cast and crew of The Room are getting paid out of Tommy's seemingly bottomless bank account, and they're also really curious what they're actually making, since nobody seems to understand the script, which ranges from a woman mentioning she has breast cancer to a group of friends tossing a football while running around in tuxedos.
Tommy's ego does eventually get out of control, and it tests the limits and patience of those around him, including Greg, but in the end his film...well, you'll just have to see what happens. Whether or not the ending is true to real life doesn't matter; it's fitting here and heightens our affection for the erratic auteur at the center of it.
And that affection toward Tommy (and Franco) must exist in real life, because several high-profile actors and industry people appear in the film, including Kevin Smith, Melanie Griffith, Sharon Stone, Judd Apatow, Seth Rogen, Jacki Weaver, Paul Scheer, Josh Hutcherson and Zac Efron, among others. Yes, Tommy may be weird, but he's unique and, ultimately, special. The question of whether he's all there may be up for debate, but people like him and the art they create stop us in our tracks, reiterating that, in this world, it takes all kinds. Tommy shakes things up without even knowing it, and although we don't necessarily hope he makes more movies, we believe he'd make them with the same spirit and intense dedication that he applied to The Room. Franco, as filmmaker and actor, is able capture that spirit, not to mention several laugh-out-lout moments, making him, unlike his subject, anything but a disaster artist.