Room for improvement
In his 1994 masterpiece Ed Wood, director Tim Burton pulled off an amazing balancing act. His biopic about the legendarily bad director of low-budget, mid-century schlock managed to make high art out of low art, simultaneously celebrating Wood’s tenacity and craft without overlooking his lack of talent and resources. The film was barbed but loving, sour yet affectionate, somehow laughing around Wood and his ensemble of oddballs without laughing at them.
James Franco’s The Disaster Artist, a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Tommy Wisseau’s 2003 disaster turned cultural phenomenon The Room, tries and occasionally executes the same trick as Ed Wood. It follows the evolving friendship between the mysteriously wealthy pseudo-vampire Tommy Wisseau (James Franco) and struggling actor Greg Sestero (Dave Franco), tracking them from their first improv class encounter through the process of shooting and screening their infamous magnum opus.
Mainstream cinephiles might not know about The Pineapple Express star’s extensive work as a director, but The Disaster Artist is the 13th feature that Franco has helmed since 2011 and his third film this year to get a theatrical release (that doesn’t even include short films and TV stuff … the man likes to work!). The Disaster Artist is a huge step up from the few dreary Franco films I have seen.
Whipping his long black hair around like a samurai sword, James Franco is the best thing about The Disaster Artist, perfectly mimicking Wisseau’s voice and mannerisms while still locating some honesty and pathos in the character. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast is a real mixed bag, especially Dave Franco in the pivotal role of Greg, as Franco’s jittery and insistent acting style clashes with the dead-eyed mannequin who appeared in The Room.
Screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber adapted a book by Sestero, and the privilege of that point-of-view weighs on the film. You get the sense that they want to credit Greg for helping create this unexpectedly lucrative cult phenomenon while also keeping him slightly above it all.
The Disaster Artist clearly holds a weird level of affection for The Room, a film famed for its inexplicably discarded subplots, discomforting sex scenes and kamikaze use of green-screen, as well as writer/director/financer/star Wisseau’s bizarre personality and inscrutable accent. But stacking the cast with a This Is the End-style comedy ensemble, only to have them sit around commenting on Wisseau’s follies like they were guests on a podcast, exposes the superior smugness at the movie’s core.
Ultimately, I’m not even sure what we’re supposed to be celebrating here. The Room seems almost depressingly normal. Or haven’t we learned by now that wealthy white assholes who use their ill-gotten fortunes to buy artistic influence and exploit women are the rules rather than the exceptions in the film industry?