by PJ Yerman
Based on the shocking and hilarious book by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell, The Disaster Artist is the true story of Greg (Dave Franco), a young aspiring actor who befriends the wacky, enigmatic filmmaker Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) to make what is now considered the “greatest worst movie of all time,” The Room.
Before I review this film, I should explain my history with The Room to provide some context. I’ve been aware of the movie since about 2009, six years after its release. Friends would often show me YouTube clips with titles like “Worst Acting In A Movie Ever!” of a vampiric man with a bizarre foreign cadence and shoulder-length ink black hair. He would scream lines such as “You’re tearing me apart, Lisa!” or “I did not hit her. It’s not true. It’s bullshit. I did not hit her. I did not. Oh, hi, Mark!” It was one of those movies that was on the periphery of references made in my friend group, but never really given the time of day. Years later I passed Sestero’s book on a shelf in Barnes and Noble and said to myself, “Oh, that’s neat.” It was only when, about a year ago, I learned that James Franco was going to be making a movie about the making of the movie, did my interest pique considerably. I watched The Room from beginning to end. I read the book from cover to cover.
Walking into The Disaster Artist, I was more intrigued about how it would fair as an adaptation of the book rather than curious about The Room’s tumultuous production, which I was already familiar with. While it’s understandably not a carbon-copy of the narrative, Franco and co-writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber do a great job of consolidating the major beats and minor details to create a story that’s in the spirit of the book but works more cohesively as a three-act film.
All that being said, this movie is supremely entertaining on every level. On one hand, for those uninitiated in The Room lore, it works as a sincere love letter to weirdos and outsiders who try to break into Hollywood by sheer passion and not taking “no” for an answer. On the other, die-hard fans of the cult hit will marvel at the painstaking recreation of the sets, recognize Franco’s spot-on Wiseau embodiment, and realize that the man they’ve been laughing at for so long might be more human than they ever thought.
The standout performances are undoubtedly from the Franco brothers. Even covered in the myriad of prosthetics needed to transform into Wiseau’s… let’s say unique… visage, James is still able to deliver a hysterical, earnest, dark, and, at times, intense performance. Dave, playing more of the straight man to James’ understandably more fascinating character, delivers his most rounded performance yet. He brings to life Greg’s initial doe-eyed innocence and puts him through the ringer of Tommy’s weird world. It’s this subtle, understated character work that allows the audience to empathize with him consistently. Most impressively, I never thought that these two characters were related in any way, given the relationship between the two leads.
Fleshing out the auxiliary players are Seth Rogen as the jaded script supervisor Sandy, often there to make what-the-fuck-is-happening faces, Paul Scheer as the director of photography Raphael who also can’t believe what’s going on; Alison Brie as Amber, Greg’s girlfriend; as well as Ari Graynor, Josh Hutcherson, Nathan Fielder and a plethora of other actors who portray The Room’s real-life actors. Of all the antics that went on during the making of The Room, few compare to what is presented on the first day of shooting, where an apparently coked-up and goateed Zac Efron cameos as a method-acting day-player, psyching himself up by spitting furiously and shoving a prop gun in Hutcherson’s character’s face. That’s the kind of movie we’re dealing with here.
Franco, directing and starring in a film where he plays the director and star of a film, doesn’t get too fancy with his actual directing duties, mostly moving out of the story’s way and letting it tell itself. He does this by not drawing attention to the camera andusing long, unbroken takes to simulate a documentary-esque, behind-the-scenes type feel. There’s one particularly dramatic sequence that plays out in a three to four minute shot, shaking and bouncing as if the cameraman is struggling to keep up with the real-time events.
I was taken aback by how quickly things got going in the first act. We’re introduced to Greg and Tommy and, after what feels like only one scene, they get all buddy-buddy with each other. Tommy was such a strange guy that I’d have a hard time believing Greg trusted him as easily as they made it out to be. The only other thing that took me out of the movie just a hair (no pun intended) was Dave’s obviously fake beard. It’s a very small thing, but it kept bothering me just ever so slightly throughout the film. Ironically enough, James’ long black wig, prosthetic lazy eyelid, and blue contact lenses didn’t phase me one bit.
What’s most commendable overall is Franco’s tricky balance of tone. A lesser director might have taken this opportunity to make fun of Wiseau and the disaster that The Room turned out to be. Instead, the characters, while all extremely flawed, are so full of heart, dedication, and blind perseverance that the movie is elevated to a story that celebrates dreamers and friendship in all its many forms.
The Disaster Artist is a profoundly sincere and hilarious take on a making-your-dreams-come-true Hollywood story that works for fans of The Room, Sestero’s book, and anyone who hasn’t yet been exposed to the genius of Tommy Wiseau.