When I first read The Disaster Artist, the book upon which the film of the same name is based, I was most struck with the author’s ability to tap into the strange comedy that is Tommy Wiseau’s existence without dipping into mockery. Perhaps it was the insider’s view afforded to Greg Sestero (who wrote alongside Tom Bissell) that gave him the ability to humanize his subject, a deeply strange man shrouded in mystery.
You see, no one knows where Tommy Wiseau is from. No one knows how old he is. And to this day, even in a world where there is no such thing as “no paper trail,” not a soul can tell you where he got the alleged six million dollars used to produce the modern camp classic, The Room.
But Sestero forged a friendship with this man, and as such has opened a window, albeit a small one, into what makes Tommy Wiseau tick. So as odd, cold, and legitimately frightening as the auteur behind “The Citizen Kane of bad movies” can be, The Disaster Artist makes it very clear that he is indeed a human. A human with the ability to dream.
So the question remains: can a film adaptation, written and directed by parties who didn’t spend their twenties chumming with Tommy be able to capture the same humanity? Will they be able to deliver on the comedy promised by the ad campaign without being mean-spirited? I’m pleased to say yes. Very very very very much so.
For those unfortunate few who do not know anything about this crazy story of Hollywood, uhhhh, success … it goes a little something like this:
Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) wants to be James Dean, but is so goddamn weird that no one will hire him to be the star he feels he was born to be. During one of his acting classes he forms a friendship with another young hopeful, Greg Sestero (Mike Pancake), who is enamored with Tommy’s go for broke attitude. Greg’s small dalliances with success inspire a Tommy to write, direct, and star in his own movie, the now infamous cult sensation The Room.
Where The Disaster Artist gets away with murder is in not having a main character. You’d think it’s about Tommy, but you’d be wrong. What filmmaker in their right mind would make such a strange man their audience surrogate? So obviously the leading man duties go to Greg, right? Nope. It’s not really about him either. Instead, it’s their friendship which ultimately takes center stage, and the film is much stronger for it, even if it doesn’t feel quite so conventional as a result. But what need is there for convention in a movie about movie so aggressively bad it became a new type of good? For film purists and connoisseurs, the decidedly laid back narrative style might prove a bit tough to find footing with, but these folks may find themselves offering more leniency than usual given the film’s almost complete lack of ego.
Even with James Franco directing and starring one doesn’t get the sense that he’s doing anything selfish by taking the spotlight. The Disaster Artist is not designed to elevate any one person or event so much as it’s a celebration of a man who did everything on his own terms and IT WORKED. One only need watch one of the many interviews in which both Franco and Wiseau are present to get a feel for the respect the former has for the latter. And why wouldn’t he? When you look back at Franco’s rather eclectic career both in front of and behind the camera, it becomes clear that despite a huge divide in talent, he and Wiseau are kindred spirits of a sort due to their unwillingness to bend to convention.
To anyone with a creative bone in their body, Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero’s story of success is as confounding as it is inspiring. Let’s just put it this way: Tommy Wiseau will have a seat at the Oscars this year. That said, I don’t think The Disaster Artist is the awards contender that A24’s ad campaign seems to want it to be, but I’d certainly be all about it if it were. Perhaps it’ll do some damage at the Golden Globes.
There are a few ways The Disaster Artist comes up short. First and foremost, although it takes pains to lean into the mysterious nature of its most prominent subject for comedic ends, the fact that the shroud is never fully lifted gives it a somewhat empty, perfunctory feeling. As I said before, we do get a delightful look at Tommy’s motivations/humanity, but it’s troubling that the film doesn’t get a chance to show us anything new. This is mostly by Tommy’s design. The dude simply will not let anyone in.
The direction too leaves some to be desired. No, it’s not poorly made by any estimation, but there is a distinct lack of style. In working to place this larger than life story into the real world (an admirably difficult task in and of itself) we lose a little bit of the why. What about this movie makes it worth having been made into a movie? I’d hate to think that it was all set up just to let Franco do a spot-on Tommy impression for 100 minutes. I really don’t think this is the case given the aforementioned lack of ego, but it gnaws at me just the same.
Also, Mike Pancake’s beard is terrible. I can’t tell if it’s an awful fake, or if it’s just what his facial hair looks like and I’m just weirded out because Mike Pancake will always be 9 years old to me. The beard that Greg sports in The Room is very much real, and in the world of The Disaster Artist it is correctly regarded as such. But Pancake just can’t pull it off. He looks like the puppet in Team America: World Police that wore a glued on beard to hid amongst the terrorists. It’s very weird looking. So odd that wonky facial hair has factored into two movies this season — you’d think we’d have this technology locked down after centuries of stage and film.
Whatever. Very very small potatoes.
You know what impresses me most? That fact that the sprawling cast of notable comedic faces doesn’t play as an Apatow-ian parade of cameos in which gags take second billing to “isn’t it awesome how we’re all such adorable friends!?!?” Outside of the opening montage of talking heads discussing why The Room is so important, any recognizable faces are used to the full extent of their comedic abilities. Seth Rogen shines as a script supervisor who goes from a state of enthusiasm to one of “whatever, let’s just get it done” after spending next to no time on Tommy Wiseau’s set. Paul Scheer, a huge champion of The Room, is wonderful as a testy PA who yearns for professionalism. Ari Graynor has the thankless task of being Tommy’s leading lady, Juliette. She disappears into the role so believably that when she and Franco share the screen, it’s easy to forget that you’re watching a recreation.
I’m not sure if any of the other cameos are meant to be a surprise, so I will bite my tongue, but I will note that each and every one is cast to perfection.
But man, James Franco BECOMES Tommy Wiseau in a way that must be seen to be believed. He looks as much like him as any non-Wiseau human possibly could, and more than a few times during the film I’d spontaneously remember that I was watching James “Harry Osborn” Franco and feel dizzy. If any aspect of the film is likely to elicit awards, it’s this performance.
What it all amounts to is a tremendously funny feel good film that doesn’t quite stand on its own so much as it plays as a great (the BEST, really) companion-piece to The Room that a cult film fan could ask for. Even non-fans are sure to get some chuckles out of it, and the dreamers among them may even be moved.
Pro tip: stay through the credits. You’ll be treated to some side by side comparisons of footage from both The Room and The Disaster Artist which highlight the reverence that Franco and friends have for the material.
And after the credits end … GOLD.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.