James Franco/ USA/ 2017/ 103 mins
At Cameo Cinema from Fri 8 Dec 2017
In 2003, a little film was released to approximately zero fanfare in two theatres in LA. The passion project of a man called Tommy Wiseau, who wrote, produced, directed and starred, The Room was a melodrama of such staggering incompetence that it has since become legendary, becoming a Rocky Horror-style interactive cult hit, and ensuring the endurance of its creator in the public eye. His friend and co-star Greg Sestero wrote a book about the experience, The Disaster Artist, which drew the attention of James Franco who directs and stars as the somewhat monstrous and deluded Tommy.
In the late 90’s, struggling actor Sestero meets Tommy Wiseau at an acting class. The two form an immediate bond, Sestero intrigued by Wiseau’s cast-iron confidence and self-belief. What the piratical Wiseau sees in Sestero is less clear, but he takes the naïve Greg under his wing. After numerous setbacks, with Greg’s encouragement, and inspired by a love of Tennessee Williams; he decides to write and direct his own film.
The elder Franco directs his recent performance art tendencies into his portrayal of Tommy. His strange persona (described accurately as a “malevolent presence” by his acting teacher), his bizarre, throttled speech and arrhythmic diction are all captured in minute detail that will delight anyone who has seen The Room. Dave Franco as Greg plays it just right, allowing James to gobble the scenery without being relegated to the background. It’s a dense, layered performance, and the fraternal chemistry between the brothers lends real credence to Tommy and Greg’s otherwise unlikely friendship.
As enjoyable as The Disaster Artist always is, with Franco’s performance standing as a wondrous feat of mimicry, it never feels like it really gets under the leathery skin of Wiseau himself. We don’t necessary need to know his age or origins; those mysteries as very much part of his niche appeal, but we never get inkling of his motivations. What were his reasons for taking the young Sestero under his wing? What forged his mercurial mix of ego and neurosis?
It’s never entirely clear that we aren’t being invited to laugh at Tommy rather than with him, a similar pall that hung over last year’s Florence Foster Jenkins, to which this film feels like a spiritual cousin. The other obvious comparison is Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, and although both have the ultimately uplifting message of a visionary following their dreams regardless of such burdens as a lack of talent, there’s a real generosity of spirit to Burton’s film, whereas Franco drapes a layer of millennial irony over The Disaster Artist.
That said, there is real insight into the creative process here and the magic of film, even when the outcome isn’t what was intended. The thing about dreams is that they’re often surreal and terrifying, and there’s a real poignancy when reach exceeds grasp. Whether you need to have seen The Room to get the most out of The Disaster Artist is debatable, but for devotees of the cult, this is manna from heaven.