Sunday, February 25, 2018

"The Disaster Artist": review

Every time I write a review about a movie that prominently features James Franco, I feel compelled to remind my readers that, for some odd reason, Franco gets a lot of hate. I'm honestly not sure why he does; I think the man is a fine actor, as he proved yet again in "127 Hours." He did a great job playing a mentally ill Harry Osborn in "Spider-Man 3," a role that required him to play several characters in one: a hateful Harry seeking revenge against Peter Parker for the death of his father; a post-knockout, amnesiac Harry who reverts to a wide-eyed, naive, "Regarding Henry"-style personality; a Harry with restored memory who manages to let go of his misguided hatred before dying. I also found Franco hilarious in the stoner flick "Pineapple Express" (strangely un-reviewed on this blog) and just as funny (with the same comedy team) in both "This Is the End" and "The Interview." Why the hatred? Do people think Franco is a bad actor? Are they seeing something I'm not?

2017's "The Disaster Artist" is directed by Franco. A glance at his filmography shows that this is by far not his directorial debut. Along with directing, Franco produces and stars in what I'd call a loving tribute to Tommy Wiseau, a mysterious Eastern European who came to America, dodging questions about his age, his origins, and the size of his apparently enormous bank account, with the dream of making it big in Hollywood. Wiseau's problem: he suffers from the Dunning-Kruger Effect, i.e., from an inaccurate (and overly positive) assessment of his own talents and abilities. Plenty of us suffer from this effect, so beware laughing at Tommy Wiseau: the beam in your eye may be much larger than the speck in his. While taking an acting class (in one of many surprise cameos, the teacher is played by none other Melanie Griffith), Wiseau meets the underconfident Greg Sestero (Dave Franco, brother of James, whom I recently saw in the Jump Street movies), a timid guy who nevertheless aspires to make it big in Hollywood. Greg is wowed by Tommy's fearlessness, despite Tommy's strange accent and weird approach to acting. Greg hits Tommy up for acting advice, and the two become friends. Not long after visiting the crash site of James Dean, the two decide (well, Tommy decides, and Greg follows) to head to Los Angeles, where Tommy maintains a largish flat thanks to his mysteriously vast supplies of money. Greg seems to do well at first: he acquires an agent (Sharon Stone!) and seems to have a promising future based primarily on his looks. Tommy, meanwhile, is unable to acquire an agent, and his various auditions and classes go poorly. Greg ends up getting little to no work from his agent, and during a pensive moment on a rooftop, he floats the idea to Tommy: why not make our own movie?

Tommy lights up, and the movie shifts into its second phase, becoming something like a documentary about the making of Tommy Wiseau's breakout film, "The Room." People acquainted with Hollywood lore know that 2003's "The Room" (which I have yet to see) is now considered one of the absolute worst movies in history—choppy, uneven, directionless, and unprofessionally made. This section of "The Disaster Artist" goes meta: not only is it a film about a film, but Tommy insists on having a crew member document the making of "The Room," thus creating another film-within-a-film. During production, some of the cast and crew quickly become mutinous and are in constant danger of walking off the set, but Greg is there to placate wounded egos and to smooth things over. By the end of filmmaking ("Day 58 of 40," says one title card), even Greg has had enough of Tommy, who obviously knows nothing about making movies. Nevertheless, "The Room" ends up having a modest premiere thanks to Tommy's unlimited funds; all that remains is to gauge the audience's reaction to the finished product. Greg, who has moved on to a career in theater after parting ways with Tommy, gets roped into seeing the premiere.

"The Disaster Artist" features James Franco doing a sustained Tommy Wiseau impression. During the ending credits, we viewers are treated to a shot-by-shot comparison between Franco's version of "The Room" and Wiseau's original film. Most of the actions and line deliveries are uncannily precise; even though the actors in these scenes are completely different, one gets the eerie feeling that one is somehow watching the same movie, just slightly skewed. Franco himself is spot-on with Wiseau's bizarrely mushy accent ("What accent?" Wiseau asks defiantly when people call him on his verbal quirks) and his physicality. This all comes to a hilarious culmination when, at the very end of the end credits, we're treated to a nighttime rooftop party scene in which the real Tommy Wiseau, playing the part of "Henry," encounters James Franco's Tommy Wiseau. This could be the meeting of long-lost twin brothers, and it's played to hilarious effect as the two needle each other.

"The Disaster Artist" brought in a lot of familiar faces. There are hints of Robert Altman in Franco's film: the star-powered cameos laced throughout the movie simultaneously ground the film in reality while making it surreal (these cameos include, but aren't limited to, Bryan Cranston, JJ Abrams, Kristen Bell, Keegan-Michael Key, Danny McBride, Kevin Smith, Sharon Stone, Melanie Griffith, Bob Odenkirk, and Judd Apatow). Seth Rogen gets special mention in his role as the eternally frustrated (but happy to be paid) script supervisor Sandy Schklair, who often ends up being the only adult in the room whenever Tommy throws a tantrum. Dave Franco, despite being James's real-life brother, looks different enough from James to play the role of Tommy's "best" friend Greg (the movie is based on Greg Sestero's book, also titled The Disaster Artist).

Ultimately, the movie showcases a uniquely American cultural trope: the triumph of lameness. As the movie's end-title cards inform us, Wiseau's horrific film has since become a cult classic, earning money through special screenings across the country. Whether Wiseau himself is self-aware enough to understand the nature of his success is another matter entirely; the movie shows us that the man is an enigma, and he's also not very well moored to reality. Is the movie a cautionary tale about the power of insanity as a means to success, or is it a warning to aspiring actors and filmmakers that the success you eventually get won't be the success you wished for? It's hard to say, but "The Disaster Artist" is a great showcase for James Franco's acting and directorial talents. It's a hilarious film, and a fine tribute to one of the weirdest personalities ever to end up on American shores.

1 comment:

John from Daejeon said...

If you follow James Franco's career, "The Disaster Artist" really isn't all that far removed from his big break in Freaks and Geeks, and, low-rated as it was, it also achieved cult status while spring-boarding most of its cast and crew into bigger and better things. Franco may never be a classic Hollywood-blockbuster, leading man, but he knows his niche, and he's very good at it. Even, when it's playing Dungeons and Dragons as Carlos the Dwarf or as Tommy Wiseau in "The Disaster Artist."