Calvin Law takes on the re-imagining of Tommy Wiseau’s ultimate unintentional cult comedy.
Tommy Wiseau, subject of Greg Sestero’s autobiography and James Franco’s new film The Disaster Artist, remains as enigmatic as ever. He has expressed approval of Franco’s work on the film, both as director and portraying Tommy himself, while also offering great affection for Franco’s performance in the box office and critical failure Sonny; yet the creator of the inimitable The Room, now thrust into the spotlight by The Disaster Artist’s exploration of that task, continues to be coy about whole chunks of his backstory. The Disaster Artist lampshades this private side to the man: Greg (James’s younger brother Dave) calls him out for lying about his age (whatever it is) and the shady sources of income used to fund The Room – and if, like Greg, you go into this expecting to learn about why Tommy Wiseau is who he is, The Disaster Artist will set you right: “Don’t even ask.”
What you will get though, is one of the most hilarious, heartwarming and uniquely uplifting films of the year. A note here – previous viewing of The Room is not requisite. Yes, it will only add to the experience if you have seen it. But if the recreations of its most iconic, unnecessarily green-screen-heavy scenes are new to you, don’t worry. This is first and foremost a tale of friendship, between Greg, a struggling young actor blessed with good looks and cursed with a crippling lack of confidence, and Tommy, a man with no such qualms. ‘Eccentric’ would be an understatement both of Tommy Wiseau and James Franco’s interpretation of him. He’s introduced delivering a completely unhinged, no-holds-barred rendition of Marlon Brando’s ‘STELLA’ from A Streetcar Named Desire. It’s completely terrible – yet you can’t take your eyes off him. His boldness as a performer draws Greg to him, and the two soon hit it off. They move to Los Angeles, hoping to follow the footsteps of their heroes Brando and James Dean, only to discover the harsh realities of the Hollywood casting process. Neither of them finds much success and Tommy becomes increasingly jealous of Greg’s relationship with his new girlfriend Amber (Alison Brie). A throwaway comment by Greg inspires Tommy to take their destiny in his own hands: to write, direct, and star in his own project, about Johnny, who lives in San Francisco, works a top-secret job, and is betrayed by everybody he loves and cares for. Tommy convinces Greg to star as Johnny’s best friend Mark – and so follows a fascinating look into the making of The Room.
James the director proves more than competent – this is surprisingly strong, assured work, which puts paid to any concerns about his less-than-stellar history behind the camera. The handheld camera used in the ‘behind-the-scenes’ sequences feels entirely natural. From the intensity of the first day of shooting the Denny v.s. Chris-R drug fight, to Johnny’s iconic destruction of his bedroom, we feel like we’re watching ‘B-roll’ footage of The Room. Franco balances the comic aspects of these scenes with the more dramatic ones incredibly well. Tommy’s repeated flunking of the ‘it’s not true, I did not hit her’ lines is hilarious, but we also sympathise with the cast and crew who have to deal with it. The navel-grazing lovemaking sessions between Johnny and Lisa are at once crudely amusing and uncomfortable to watch.
Tough he’s more than serviceable as an auteur, it’s in his performance as the one and only inhabitant of Planet Wiseau that James Franco really shines. A star of his stature could have been distracting in the role, but Franco comes pretty close to the real deal here. You soon forget it’s him doing that lopsided grin, the squinty eyes, the weird voice and loopy accent, that unnatural-sounding laugh. You accept the outrageous Tommy for who he is because of James’s uncanny work as the man, capturing the mannerisms and tics, and most importantly the enduring spirit of Tommy Wiseau that has endeared him to so many: a wholehearted belief in himself against the odds. It would be too easy to forget the other Franco in all this, but Dave is also superb in the less showy, but equally important role of Greg. He doesn’t try to impersonate the real-life man, but more than makes up for it with his endearing, energetic work, and particularly his great chemistry with his off-screen brother. You will totally buy this odd-couple dynamic of Greg as the exasperated straight man to Tommy’s increasingly weird and demanding antics.
One notable thing about the film is that, though it admires Tommy’s dedication to making the film he wanted, it does not ignore his less savoury antics. Whether it’s his mistreatment of the leading actress Juliette (Ari Graynor), or his indifference and agitation at the reasonable demands of his script supervisor Sandy (Seth Rogen), we get to see the ugly side of Tommy that Greg described in his autobiography; one particularly striking moment comes when one of Tommy’s ludicrous plot points costs Greg a potential breakout role in a hit sitcom. The screenplay, written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, sketches Greg and Tommy’s friendship with great understanding and sensitivity, showing how the drive and dreams that brought them together could also so easily tear them apart. This element of the film brings about a great deal of humour, but also helps build it up to a surprisingly heartfelt conclusion. The Francos and co. manage to make this failure somehow uplifting in its own way. Like Tim Burton’s Ed Wood we feel the ambition and effort of our protagonists itself is its own reward, and The Disaster Artist allows us to poke fun at The Room while also admiring it.
If there’s a flaw to the film, it’s that some of the supporting players of The Room don’t get quite enough material to make an impact. Rogen and Paul Scheer as a pair of understandably frustrated crew members are entertaining, Graynor makes a lot out of her simple role, Josh Hutcherson and Zac Efron are hilarious in their big scene together, and Nathan Fielder is the perfect ‘Peter’ – clumsy and really just a chicken, cheep cheep cheep. But most of the other actors don’t get much of a look in: I would have liked to see more of Jacki Weaver, Andrew Santino, and June Diane Raphael recreating some of the most iconic moments of The Room, and Brie’s role never amounts to much more than a simple plot device. But this is a minor quibble really. The ensemble fulfils all their roles more than adequately, with a few particularly entertaining cameos thrown into the mix, and of course it’s the central relationship between the director and his ‘Babyface’ which really makes it work. I went in expecting and was rewarded with brilliant re-enactments of my favourite The Room moments, but what really stuck with me in the end was its story of persisting with your dreams even if they don’t turn out the way you’d imagined. It is a hilarious yet respectful film about a fascinating story, and though you’ll enter the theatre for the laughs, don’t be surprised if you emerge more than a little bit teary-eyed.
The Disaster Artist is out now in UK cinemas. Watch the trailer below: