Arts & Media

What a story, James!: The Disaster Artist review

Tommy Wiseau's accidental cult classic The Room is given a hilarious and touching tribute by James Franco, in a superb directorial debut that never forgets how much it owes its maker.

TOMMY WISEAU was so certain he’d created a cinematic masterpiece that he paid for The Room to appear in enough cinemas for the two-week period required for Academy Award consideration. The Room was to be his magnum opus. As well as starring in the lead role, Wiseau, a bizarre, vampire-like amateur with enough enthusiasm to make up for his utter absence of taste and talent, wrote, directed and produced the film. It is, by all accounts, a disaster: ‘the Citizen Kane of bad movies.’

Yet Wiseau somehow came upon a winning formula of terrible, overwrought acting and writing combined with the total earnestness of a child using his Dad’s camera to film the drama of playtime in his back garden. It is a work of accidental genius occupying that liminal zone between brilliant and terrible. It swiftly became a cult classic, and today hordes of cinema-goers queue up to meet Tommy Wiseau and shout and laugh and clap along to his creation, shown in cinemas around the world. This now-beloved film and the origin of its bizarre creation is captured on screen by The Disaster Artist, James Franco’s directorial debut.

The film is adapted from a bestselling book of the same name by Greg Sestero, Tommy Wiseau’s co-star, best friend, and unwitting rabbit to his headlights. It is a hilarious and often touching tale of friendship and succeeding against all the odds – and the boundaries of talent.

It’s an engrossing work, but I had some reservations when I heard it was to be adapted. For a start, a film as niche as The Room risk becoming the butt of a series of inside jokes, especially from filmmakers already fans of the film, and all to willing to indulge themselves quoting their favourite lines. Secondly, by eschewing the book’s episodic nafture which puts Wiseau’s more bizarre antics during production into context by alternating them with the story of Sestero’s burgeoning career and the pair’s very real friendship, the film might lose some of its poignancy by focusing too much on Wiseau’s on-set behaviour, therefore becoming little more than mockery.

I was wrong to be worried. Inside of back-slapping inside jokes, The Disaster Artist is a clever, measured portrait of fame, ambition, and friendship made by people who care about their source material. The film is always funny, regularly cover-your-eyes excruciating, and often touching.

We are immediately thrust headfirst into Tommy’s Planet, from Wiseau’s baffling interpretation of A Streetcar Named Desire that opens the film, to our first sight of his strange, fantasy version of Los Angeles in which the only barrier to success is insufficient pigheadedness and energetic, futile pursuit of your dreams. Greg Sestero is our fellow traveller, and we come to cringe and laugh along with him as he learns about his new friend, his curious way of life, and his plan to circumvent Hollywood convention by producing his very own film.

Although Sestero is nominally our hero, Tommy Wiseau is given an unexpectedly human and sympathetic portrayal, far removed from a man publicly keen to portray himself as a supernatural being. James Franco’s superb performance as the madcap director takes centre stage, thanks in part to some prosthetics and a fairly convincing accent. Wiseau’s eccentricities, often sinister behaviour, and utter incompetence and ineptitude is laid bare.

The Disaster Artist doesn’t shy away from Tommy Wiseau’s more unpleasant character traits.

Neither does The Disaster Artist shy away from Tommy Wiseau’s more unpleasant character traits. Franco’s performance layers his whacky, larger-than-life eccentricities with an undercurrent of jealousy, mean-spiritedness, and secretiveness that bubbles to the surface over the course of the production. But Franco’s portrayal is not quite ‘warts and all’. For instance, the film omits a portion of the book in which members of the cast and crew would retreat to a ‘laughter tent’ to secretly let off steam during some of Wiseau’s more bizarre outbursts. To add this to a film already teetering on the edge of mockery – albeit gentle – would be unfair.

Balancing mockery and sympathy is what the film does best. The very real and (almost) heartwarming story of against-the-odds success does deserve some recognition, and Franco’s performance brings enough nuance to the character for us to believe in it. We share a sense of pathos when – despite his endless enthusiasm – he is repeatedly rebuffed by Hollywood, and delight when he realises his dream in front of a cheering audience at The Room‘s premiere.

At its heart, The Disaster Artist is a tribute to Hollywood – or at least the Hollywood of our imagination. It celebrates not only the frantic circus of making a movie, but also the dream shared by a million amateur actors just like Wiseau and Sestero who come to Los Angeles to find fame and fortune. It’s best exemplified by a scene in which the actress Carolyn Minnott (portrayed, perhaps appropriate by Academy Award-nomianted Jack Weaver) faints, having performed a non-sequitir scene under sweltering conditions. ‘Why do you do it?’ asks Greg Sestero. ‘We’re actors, Greg,’ Minnott answers. ‘You and me, people like us… even the worst day on a movie set is better than the best day anywhere else.’ Despite the fact that her character could be removed from the film without anyone noticing she’d gone, and despite the fact that her most memorable line – ‘I definitely have breast cancer!’ – passes by totally unremarked, Minnott never lets her dream slip away.

It’s a dream shared by every member of cast, from Tommy Wiseau to Greg Sestero and all the other actors he roped into service to make it a reality. Beyond the chaos, The Disaster Artist is about a group of amateurs who all found themselves sucked into orbit around Tommy’s Planet, just like the audience, for a common purpose: to make a Hollywood movie. It’s a theme that’s sure to help put The Disaster Artist into Academy Award contention; after all, Hollywood is never happier than when it’s being self-referential. If it comes anywhere near winning an Oscar, it will have earned it.

In reality, The Room was not an instant classic, but the film captures a sense of that boundless joy and the delight it has stoked, and the sincere respect with which Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero are now accorded. But something goes unacknowledged: Tommy Wiseau doesn’t really deserve any of it. Aside from being a thoroughly unpleasant man, Wiseau is utterly talentless as a writer, director, and actor. His masterpiece was given its spotlight by his own near-bottomless well of money. The lesson of The Disaster Artist and The Room is to never give up on your dreams. A second lesson might be to become a millionaire before you try to realise them.

Letterhole rating: 9/10

 

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