Written by Shawn Eastridge
The Disaster Artist, James Franco’s adaptation of Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell’s novel depicting Sestero’s recollections of making the best worst movie ever, has a lot of things going for it. It’s light on its feet and features one of the most astounding performances of the year in Franco’s interpretation of Tommy Wiseau, the madman behind the travesty that is The Room. But, having read Sestero’s first-hand account, I can’t help but feel Franco and screenwriting duo Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber missed the (oh, hai) mark, dumbing down characters and using obvious plot points to push things forward. Despite the consistent laughs, they never succeed in justifying the film’s existence beyond an excuse to recreate iconic scenes from the cult classic and showcase Franco’s acting chops. It’s an affectionate love letter to The Room and Wiseau, but fails to be anything more than that.
The film, like the novel on which it’s based, follows Greg Sestero (Dave Franco), an aspiring actor crippled by insecurity whenever he steps on-stage to perform. During one of his acting classes, he witnesses a bizarre, but enthusiastic performance of Marlon Brando’s iconic ‘Stella!’ monologue from A Streetcar Named Desire. The performer is none other than Tommy Wiseau, and Greg is so taken by Tommy’s lack of fear or concern for how others might perceive him that he immediately requests to be Tommy’s stage partner.
Tommy is an elusive character. He won’t talk about where he’s from, how old he is, or how he manages to afford an apartment in L.A. and San Francisco simultaneously, but he agrees to take Greg under his wing and help him develop his confidence as an actor. It’s an odd couple bond of the finest order and it’s in these early scenes as the pair develop an unlikely friendship that The Disaster Artist really shines with the Franco brothers playing remarkably well off one another.
Eventually Tommy and Greg decide to move to L.A. together to pursue their dreams of being actors. After numerous failed auditions with little movement for either of them, Greg gives the off-hand suggestion that they should just make their own movie, little realizing the Pandora’s box he’s just opened. What follows is pretty much the entire movie for this film’s existence: the recreation of The Room’s troubled production and the sheer, mad devotion Wiseau had in seeing it through.
I can’t imagine anyone who hasn’t seen The Room will embrace The Disaster Artist in the same way its cult following will. I’d go so far as to say The Room is required viewing to enjoy the film to its fullest, as it feels more like a companion piece than a successful standalone effort. The problem is Neustadter and Weber can’t seem to craft an involving story or paint its characters as anything other than one note. There’s an attempt to develop tension between Wiseau and Sestero by showcasing Wiseau’s jealousy of Sestero, and his using The Room as an attempt to convey those frustrations, but it feels forced, as do the superficial plotting elements thrown in for good measure. (The subplot involving Greg’s girlfriend is perhaps the best example. She contributes little to nothing to the overall story). Judging from Franco’s documentary-esque, handheld style, it seems his intention was to give the film an aura of realism, but these things only serve to call attention to the unshakable artificiality of the film. It’s as if Franco was so in love with the idea of playing a character as bizarre and eccentric as Wiseau, he forgot to fill in the remaining blanks and elevate them to his performance’s level.
And really, his portrayal of Tommy Wiseau is the strongest argument in favor of The Disaster Artist. Franco disappears into the role so completely my brain could barely handle it. There were more than a handful of moments I forgot I was watching a performance and thought the quasi-Vampire himself had slipped into frame unnoticed. It’s incredible and one of Franco’s finest to to date.
Less successful is his brother Dave Franco, though I hesitate to hold him solely responsible for the character’s shortcomings. Not only does he have the thankless task of playing the straight man to his older brother’s more flamboyant antics, but the screenplay offers little to endear us to Greg. As written, the character is little more than a doe-eyed innocent who spends more time looking perplexed and taken aback by everything around him than coming across as a real person with genuine motivations. (It also doesn’t help that Dave Franco is the only cast member who doesn’t remotely resemble the real-life individual he’s portraying.)
In the real Sestero’s account of The Room's production, he comes across as intelligent and thoughtful, always aware of and disturbed by Wiseau’s all-too-apparent flaws. His relationship with the guy never comes at the expense of his common sense; he’s fully cognizant of Wiseau’s tyrannical conduct on set. In the film version, however, Greg spends most of his time attempting to justify Tommy’s behavior and he comes across as a complete moron. Perhaps it was an attempt on the screenwriters’ part to emphasize the film’s bromance angle and make the characters’ eventual, inevitable falling out all the more effective, but it just doesn’t work because we never understand why Greg likes Tommy so much. (In real life, Sestero was attracted by the prospect of a paid gig and that was about it)
But while The Disaster Artist might fall short of greatness, it has its charms and is an absolute must-see for fans of The Room. James Franco’s performance alone is worth the price of admission. It’s a shame the creative team deviated so strongly from such great source material in favor of simplistic plot points and underdeveloped characters. You might not walk away with any profound insights into The Room’s production or the mindsets of anyone involved, but you’ll have a good laugh or two. Just don’t be surprised if you find yourself wishing for something more.