The Disaster Artist, dir. James Franco│ The past few years have seen James Franco trying to make a name for himself as a director, after establishing a persona as a committed actor and visual artist. His various efforts as a filmmaker, in particular his series of Faulkner and Steinbeck adaptations (plus a shot at Cormac McCarthy) have tended to divide and confuse audiences who didn’t understand why someone with Franco’s limited directing experience would be so bold as to tackle such monuments of American literature. Those failures could explain Franco’s dramatic turn in the opposite direction with his latest project. The Disaster Artist is also based on a famous book, albeit one in a different register: written by actor Greg Sestero (with an assist by Tom Bissell), it tells the non-fictional tale of the making of The Room, arguably the most infamously incompetent film ever made. Switching from classics to cult, Franco seems to have finally found the best playground yet for both his absurdist sense of humour and developed understanding of Hollywood.
A more cynical director could have turned the story of The Room into a depressing and sinister dissection of everything that’s wrong with Hollywood – showing how its primary currency is money rather than talent, or revealing how cruel it can be towards those who dream. From the film’s documentary-like opening sequence, Franco makes clear that his intentions are much kinder. A group of contemporary actors and filmmakers appearing as themselves explain what makes The Room such a wonderful anomaly, without once giving away the name of the film. Of course, the audience already knows what movie these guests are referring to, and the discrepancy between their enthusiasm -the sincerity of which is often genuinely difficult to assess- and the reality of The Room’s known awfulness brings the first of many laughs in Franco’s film. “Who is this man? Who is this auteur?” exclaims one talking head — a line that hopefully will become as cult as any of the many catchphrases people love to shout at quote-along screenings of The Room.
As in the book, The Disaster Artist follows Greg Sestero’s trajectory, from his first encounter with Tommy Wiseau in an acting class in San Francisco in 1998, to the calamitous premiere of Tommy’s film, starring Greg, in 2003. Dave Franco may seem like an odd choice to play Greg opposite his brother James, who quite unsurprisingly, given his arrogant and ambitious tendencies, decided to interpret Tommy himself, while also directing the film. The brothers operate on completely different registers, however, because Tommy himself only ever operates on his own unique register. Dave communicates the mixture of naive hopefulness and insecurity native to aspiring actors with impressive freshness, avoiding cliche with a relaxed performance. As Greg progressively realises the mess he’s gotten himself into, Dave employs his goofy smile and curious eyes with confidence, but also a measured self-awareness that makes him irresistibly endearing.
While Dave doesn’t look very much like the real Greg (who was actually sought after by casting agents due to his handsomeness) but instead works to create an impression of Sestero’s experience, James takes impersonation to another level. Tommy Wiseau’s infamous wax-like face makes him arguably quite easy to recreate through prosthetics, which is done very convincingly (and appropriately terrifyingly) here, but more impressive still is James’s performance. It is almost painful to think of the hours the actor must have spent studying Tommy’s incomprehensible speech, baffling gestures and deeply troubling acting style. The results make the ordeal worthwhile: James Franco incorporates the ever-elusive mannerisms of his character with flair, yet the actor — a strange figure in his own right — remains perceptible underneath. His Tommy has welcome traces of Alien, James’s character from Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, a film itself on the way to cult status. Similarly awkward around people and apparently in a constant daze -Alien because of drugs, Tommy because of… who knows?- these antiheroes offer the stunt artist of Hollywood the best opportunities to make his usual ironic arrogance more ridiculous and enjoyable than irritating for his audience.
The ‘behind the scenes’ premise of The Disaster Artist wouldn’t be enough to make for a good film even if the movie in question something wasn’t as baffling as The Room. Credit also has to be given to James Franco’s direction. The script may have been streamlined into an easy to follow chronological narrative, but Franco’s dynamic camera and editing find each particle of weirdness in every situation and exaggerate it to the extreme, — Wiseau-style. Moving awkwardly from character to character as they find themselves confronted with Tommy’s strange behaviour, the camera has an odd rhythm that keeps the spectator on edge, awaiting the next insanely funny twist. Slight jump cuts and a sound design that translates the confusion on set or anytime Greg is having a conversation with Tommy create a sense of absurd virtuosity, as if Tommy took his crew and the audience on a rollercoaster on a foggy day, when the direction of the rails in front was impossible to determine.
James Franco’s comic timing as actor and director is perfectly matched by that of his glorious cast of usual collaborators and new additions. Seth Rogen might be the character most aligned with the spectator: as script supervisor Sandy Schklair, he is perpetually baffled by what his job requires of him and isn’t afraid to show it since it has become clear that Tommy won’t even notice his sarcasm. With such talent in his team, Franco takes the hilarity of the making of such incredible scenes as the “oh, hi, Mark” sequence to the next level: stand up comedians such as Nathan Fielder -of Nathan for You fame- and contemporary American comedic actors share a similar taste for deadpan, awkward and dumb humour that lends itself perfectly well to this story of incomprehension and resignation to the whims of a strange individual. Following their need for money -of which Tommy, for mysterious reasons, has plenty- and painfully going through the motions of what their job asks them to do, the whole crew grows frustrated and the actors get more brutal and hilarious when expressing their anger. As a spectator, knowing that their doubts were justified adds empathy to the pervasive and endlessly comical dread one feels for these professional filmmakers trapped in this “real Hollywood movie, not Mickey Mouse shit,” as Tommy typically describes his project.
This empathetic streak at once lifts up the general tone of the film, countering the extreme stupidity and arrogance that people around Tommy have to suffer, but also becomes the main throughline of the film. Despite Tommy’s complete detachment from reality and occasional cruelty, Greg can’t help caring for and even admiring him. If Greg and Tommy’s eventual 180 degree turnaround from shame to pride feels too optimistic to be true, it ties in perfectly with the film’s general embrace of the unpredictability of filmmaking. Throughout, Tommy’s decisions and the results they brought -whether in his script or on set as the crew shifted between trust, obligation and tiredness- proved completely unstable and dynamic, perpetually in flux. Through the extreme example of Tommy’s madness, James Franco has painted a love letter to the process of creation. Always collaborative even when the product of unchecked narcissism, filmmaking requires the dedication of many, including the spectator, to complete the illusion.
Ultimately, what vouchsafed The Room’s success was its astonished and faithful audience, which has kept the film’s spirit alive to this day, so much so that another, kindred disaster artist -both Tommy and James Franco love Tennessee Williams, after all- decided to dedicate himself to telling its story, with his own vanity-slash-collaboration-with-my-best-actor-friends project. And just like Tommy, James Franco created an unlikely work of art that functions thanks to what should have impaired it: its unbridled hubris.■
The Disaster Artist │ Director: James Franco│ Screenplay: Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber│ Camera: Brandon Trost │ Editing: Stacey Schroeder│ Music: Dave Porter│ Cast: James Franco, Dave Franco, Seth Rogen│ Producer: James Franco, Evan Goldberg, Vince Jolivette, Seth Rogen, James Weaver│ Production Company: New Line Cinema / Good Universe / Point Grey Pictures / Rabbit Bandini Productions│Country: USA │ Year: 2017│ Running Time: 103 min.│ International Sales: -│ Festival: Toronto IFF 2017│