REVIEW – ‘The Disaster Artist’

Films about the making of films are a dime a dozen. We’ve seen this many times before. But those concerned with the making of a disaster are always so much more entertaining and effective than those of major successes. Such is the case with The Disaster Artist – the story behind The Room aka the so-called “worst film ever made.” What begins as something so unfathomably absurd and truly hilarious becomes a surprisingly moving portrait of one man’s unwavering love of filmmaking, even while crafting a monumental failure.

For those uninitiated (to properly enjoy this film, you don’t need have seen it, but it helps), The Room is a 2003 film that somehow grew cult-status among lovers of absurdist cinema and college kids looking for something ridiculous to share with their friends. Easily one of the worst pieces of cinema to ever grace the screen, the film’s cult following was further cemented by the backstory of its downright bizarre and wacky production. Funded entirely by a mysterious and eccentric man by the name of Tommy Wiseau, who had never made a film in his life, the final cost of The Room ultimately blew out to a staggering $6 million – a huge number for an independent picture.

Wiseau, the film’s writer, director, producer and lead actor, was a maniacal and tyrannical figure, often clashing with his fellow actors and the film’s production team, and known for showing up hours late during filming. The schedule ran weeks over time. The budget continued to swell out of control. Wiseau was an abysmal actor, constantly forgetting his lines or misunderstanding the mood of the scenes. And the script was so downright confusing, even the actors had no idea what the film was ultimately about.

Out of Wiseau’s own pocket, the film premiered in two Los Angeles cinemas in June, 2003, and ultimately grossed all of $1,200. In other words, it bombed. Hard. In Hollywood, that’s normally the end of the line. But once the film came to DVD, it spread like wildfire, and Wiseau found himself dubbed the Ed Wood of the 21st century. The film continues to be shown at fan screenings around the globe, and Wiseau is now a cult figure of modern cinema. Not bad for a man who has no discernible talent for filmmaking.

From that true-life story of failure, redemption, and a bizarre cultural phenomenon that could only happen in Hollywood, we now have The Disaster Artist. Based on the behind-the-scenes memoir by Greg Sestero (one of the film’s actors) and Tom Bissell, the film is told from the perspective of Sestero (Dave Franco), a wannabe-actor living in San Francisco. After the painfully introverted Sestero completely butchers a scene from Waiting for Godot in his acting class, he strikes up a conversation with fellow classmate Tommy Wiseau (a career-best James Franco), after being impressed by his eccentric interpretation of the infamous “Stella!” scene from A Streetcar Named Desire.

The pair quickly form an unconventional friendship, mostly based on their love of cinema and acting. When Wiseau casually mentions he owns an apartment in Los Angeles he rarely uses (the first clue he somehow has a never-ending supply of cash), the two make the snap decision to pack up and head to Hollywood to make their acting dreams come true. Sestero, with his boyish good looks and so-so acting skills, quickly finds an agent and lands himself a girlfriend (Alison Brie), but it’s not so rosy for Wiseau.

With his thick eastern European accent (even though he claims to hail from New Orleans) and atrocious acting skills, Wiseau is shunned by the industry, and pigeon-holed as a villain-only type actor. After a hilarious run-in with Judd Apatow (one of many delicious industry cameos), who declares Wiseau will “never make it, not in a million years,” and Sestero’s career trajectory stalls, the pair decide to make their own path, and create their own film project, funded entirely by Wiseau. There’s just one small problem – never of them have a clue what they’re doing. What follows is a fly-on-the-wall look at the disastrous creation of one of the worst films ever made.

Working as both star and director, James Franco is on absolute fire here. In a career of hits and miss (and that god-awful Oscars hosting gig in 2011), a Franco film is always something to approach with trepidation. But as a filmmaker, he clearly has a keen sense of what constitutes a great cinematic story, and he’s found a doozy with The Disaster Artist. The screenplay from Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber is filled with genuinely hilarious dialogue and downright brilliant set-pieces that will have you in true hysterics. But it’s not all played for laughs. There is a keen sense of understanding the man behind the myth, and the trauma crafting a picture can play on those involved.

While continuing to paint Wiseau as the mysterious cult-figure he has become, it ventures into his motivations as a filmmaker and his deep passion for his bizarre film project, which, by the film’s conclusion, becomes rather touching, in a way. Rather unexpectedly, the film ultimately serves an intimate portrait of what constitutes an artist, and what an artists goes through to create something they’re deeply passionate about. Wiseau really did see himself as a true artist, desperately attempting to craft his masterpiece of cinema. Yes, that seems bizarre when you know how the finished product turns out, but it’s the truth at the movie’s core. As an audience member, it becomes rather impossible not to want to see him succeed, despite his bizarre and somewhat off-putting character traits.

That’s can only be thanks to Franco’s sensational performance as Tommy Wiseau. What begins as somewhat of a caricature, with Wiseau’s strange speech patterns and mangled foreign accent feeling initially jarring, quickly becomes something incredibly captivating and genuinely wonderful. In Franco’s deft hands, it’s not hard to see why Sestero and those involved in the production were so willing to go along for this insane ride. There’s a beautiful and quirky charm to this man, and Franco understands and respects this deeply. He clearly has deep empathy for this desperate man, and his performance is filled with such ardent love, no matter how ridiculous the scenarios may be. All trace of Franco fade away with this performance, especially when viewed alongside the man himself, and he commits to this role like nothing he’s delivered before. The Best Actor race is already rather crowded, but his name deserves to be added to the buzz.

Surrounding Franco is a superb supporting cast of wonderful characters and performances. As Tommy’s beleaguered and long-suffering best friend Greg, Dave Franco is also fantastic to watch. Despite the chaos Wiseau creates on set, his loyalty is unwavering, and the two share a bond that is genuinely touching. It obviously helps the two are brothers in real-life, as their chemistry is truly perfect. You can tell the pair are having the time of their life here, and their energy is genuinely electric. There’s also some short but terrific performances from Jacki Weaver, Seth Rogen, Ari Graynor and Paul Scheer, as the baffled and tormented (Graynor’s sex scene with Wiseau is particularly torturous) cast and crew members of The Room.  They are just as lost in this production as we are viewing it, and their outrageous reactions to Wiseau’s insane behaviour are some of the film’s highlights.

For all the laughs you’ll enjoy (and there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments), it’s the film’s warmth that will ultimately grab your heart. The best comedy is always hilarious, but also heartfelt, and Franco wildly succeeds at both. Everyone has their own goals and dreams, and those that chase them are to be admired, no matter how ridiculous the path they take may seem. Fans of The Room and Tommy Wiseau will adore this film, but even those not in on the joke will be completely captivated and entertained as well.

The film’s credits run a series of insanely uncanny side-by-side scenes from both films that ultimately show Franco’s deep respect for the original. The meticulous work he’s taken to recreate these sequences show what a passion project this was for him. And it’s a work of cinema that’s so damn admirable, you can’t help but applaud. A tribute to Tommy Wiseau, and a tribute to cinema itself, The Disaster Artist is absolute gold and an absolute must-see.