Review: The Disaster Artist (2017)


The Disaster Artist is a raucous comedy that’s also a work of profound sympathy. In many ways it resembles an Apatow comedy, with plenty of celebrity cameos and humour built around ironic self-reference—hell, Apatow  even has a role in the film as a snooty film producer—but it has none of the shagginess or the inside-out worldview of Apatow-produced comedy. Tommy Wiseau, the central figure of The Disaster Artist, might be rich, but he’s no insider, and there’s nothing smug about this film or its humour.

Instead, The Disaster Artist is something more earnest and ends up being better than anything Apatow has managed to conjure as a director. In telling the story of an atrociously bad artist, and aligning himself so unambiguously with him, James Franco manages something of a miracle: a hilarious film about an icon of irony that bears not a hint of condescension. 

Dave Franco stars as Greg Sestero, an eager-eyed, baby-faced hunk who wants to be an actor but possesses neither the confidence nor the talent to be one. Greg hitches his wagon to the star of Tommy Wiseau (James Franco), a mysterious weirdo he meets in his acting class who has bottomless sources of money and confidence, despite a complete lack of talent or self-awareness. We meet Wiseau as he performs a scene from A Streetcar Named Desire, wailing “Stella!” with the sort of bizarre anguish that rivets even as it discomforts. Soon enough, Greg and Tommy move to Los Angeles to try to make it in Hollywood. When that doesn’t happen, Greg convinces Tommy that they should just make their own movie, and so Tommy sets about writing, directing, and starring in a melodrama soon to be known as The Room.

If you have even a basic knowledge of recent pop culture, you’ll probably have seen bits of The Room or at least recognize its name. While initially a dud upon its self-distributed release, the film soon began to attract a cult following and continues to pull in midnight crowds who reenact scenes and mythologize its insane excesses. The Room’s bizarre anti-success has transformed Greg and Tommy into minor celebrities, which allowed Greg to write the book (along with journalist and critic, Tom Bissell) upon which the film is based.

The popularity of The Room undoubtedly grew out of the ironic hipness of the late-aughts, but The Disaster Artist does not employ this irony in its retelling of Greg and Tommy’s story. Without a doubt the ironic allure of The Room contributed to the film’s funding, but Franco has too much affection for Wiseau and his blind ambition to shortchange the man. In fact, Franco’s adoration of and identification with Wiseau is staggering, as both a director and actor.

Like Wiseau, Franco is an overachieving multi-hyphenate artist whose desire for expression usually outstrips his talents behind the camera. He’s directed dozens of films in recent years—many of them adaptations of the works of William Faulkner or other icons of “unfilmable” literature—but none have found critical or commercial success. In embodying Wiseau, both physically—with his vaguely-Slavic, slurring accent and dead-eyed stare—and spiritually—by embarking on an ambitious film that many thought was beyond his artistic capacity—Franco has accomplished the nifty job of validating the artistic impulses of both Wiseau and himself.

Here, finally, Franco proves himself to be a worthy director. His visual style is clean, using abundant close-ups to keep us attached to Greg and Tommy and aware that this is their story and no one else’s. The film has a loose feel to it, letting you revel in the hangout vibe of Greg and Tommy’s early friendship, but it’s not shaggy and the editing keeps the plot moving forward with clear momentum. Once Greg and Tommy start making The Room, Franco proves himself an exceptional mimic as a director, aping the bizarre rhythms and visual language of Wiseau’s film down to a tee. In fact, the end credits even compare Franco’s and Wiseau’s versions side-by-side to give you a clear idea of his visual fidelity. 

It’s no easy feat to recreate the work of a bad artist without losing what makes the art specifically bad. Luckily, Franco pulls it off and creates a section of the film that should satisfy both fans of The Room and newcomers. Newbies will be able to sense the peculiar awfulness and watchability of The Room because of Franco’s attention-to-detail, while fans of Wiseau’s film can additionally get a kick out of comparing it to the original. This section of The Disaster Artist is the film’s highlight and an impressive work of comedy.

Even more impressive is Franco’s performance as Wiseau, which goes well beyond mere mimicry, even if he is eerily identical to Wiseau in look and cadence. While Wiseau’s strange accent and appearance is initially funny, Franco never lingers on it and his performance becomes a showcase of an underlying desperation and hurt the further the film progresses. Wiseau is clearly a damaged individual who wants affection and he looks for it in Greg and then in the hypothetical audience for his work. When that affection is denied him, his confidence crumbles and he becomes little more than a wounded child. One particular scene of Wiseau’s dejection in a park late in the film is devastating; despite the ludicrousness of his appearance, the pain on Franco’s face is too palpable not to be affecting.

It’s true that The Disaster Artist veers away from exploring the details of Wiseau’s past or explaining his mysterious wealth, accent, and appearance, but this is more out of respect for Wiseau than out of authorial negligence on Franco’s part; Wiseau famously refuses to answer questions about his life. Franco is too protective of Wiseau to betray his trust; he sees too much of himself in him, and it’s that identification as both artist and actor that makes The Disaster Artist so exceptional.

People became obsessed with The Room out of a mocking spirit, but The Disaster Artist should be the final nail in the coffin of its ironic enjoyment. It liberates the film from the realm of joke and failure and transfers it to the pantheon of bewildering successes. In a recent New York Times article, Franco even comments that an early screening of The Disaster Artist represented “the first time that Tommy heard unironic applause, just for him.” If it manages to get any Oscar nominations, it will retroactively validate Wiseau’s artistic choices and impulses, for Wiseau could have dreamt of nothing greater than giving birth to an awards success.

Forget the people who say that Franco is mocking Wiseau with The Disaster Artist. “It’s not true. It’s bullshit!” This is a work of exceptional sympathy, of one artist bonding with another and transcending his own failings as he explores the failings of another. It turns failure into success and trash into art.

8 out of 10

The Disaster Artist (2017, USA)

Directed by James Franco; written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, based off the book by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell; starring James Franco, Dave Franco, Seth Rogen, Alison Brie, Ari Graynor, Josh Hutcherson, Jacki Weaver.