“THE DISASTER ARTIST”
An ode to bad taste and dubious intentions, the ha-ha comedy “The Disaster Artist” involves one of the favorite topics of the movies: itself. It’s another story of crushed Hollywood dreams, one that unfolds through the eyes of Greg Sestero (Dave Franco), an aspiring actor who hitched himself to a phenomenon when he met Tommy Wiseau (James Franco, Dave’s brother). A would-be auteur, the real Wiseau became a minor cult figure after he released a 2003 specialty item, “The Room,” that some anointed the worst movie ever made. In time, its notoriety started to pay off; in 2013, Sestero wrote a tell-all book.
Based on that tell-all (which Sestero wrote with Tom Bissell), “The Disaster Artist” recounts both the making of a friendship and the absurdly inept movie it produced. Greg meets Tommy in acting class, where they’re both bombing out. Greg comes off as simply incompetent as he flatly fumbles through a scene from “Waiting for Godot,” one of the movie’s first jokey meta-moments. Tommy, by vivid contrast, captivates the agape class — particularly the inhibited Greg — by turning up the volume on Stanley Kowalski while thrashing about as if demonically possessed.
An odd, inexplicable friendship begins, and before long Greg and Tommy are driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles, where much of the story takes place. Shacked up in Tommy’s apartment, the two men try and fail to break into the entertainment business, though Greg manages to sign with a talent agency. Tommy continues to prove his lack of talent in a very funny and terrible audition; Greg finds romance with a bartender, Amber (Alison Brie). At last, inspired by Greg, Tommy — who has mysteriously deep pockets that never seem to empty — decides to direct and star in his own movie, with Greg as backup. It’s a personal vision that eventually spirals into a mutual hallucination.
James Franco, who also directed “The Disaster Artist,” swoops through the movie like a star, one who has no idea that he never achieved liftoff. His face framed by a dramatic curtain of inky black hair and noticeably if discreetly modified by prosthetics, Franco certainly looks the part and sounds it too, having perfectly captured Wiseau’s puzzling accent and arrhythmic intonation. Yet even at its most convincing, Franco’s performance retains an interior lightness, a playfulness, including when Tommy goes emotionally dark. Franco isn’t making fun of his character, at least not entirely; rather, he’s put distance into the mix, as if to point out that Tommy is very much a self-made man, a construction.
Written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, “The Disaster Artist” is a straighter, more obviously commercial-minded project than some of the other movies that Franco has directed. It’s a divertingly funny movie, but its breeziness can also feel overstated, at times glib and a bit of a dodge. In “The Room,” Wiseau comes across as somewhat menacing, with an underlying intensity that can’t be entirely laughed away. (That’s part of what makes the unwatchable almost watchable.) Franco’s performance keeps you hooked, in large degree because of its entertaining visual spectacle. Tommy’s wardrobe, for one, suggests a commitment to the 1980s and a familiarity with the defunct catalog International Male, a source for padded briefs and Jack Sparrow frippery.
Yet if Wiseau is a bona fide eccentric, he proves to be not an especially interesting one in this incarnation. The filmmakers try to complicate Tommy, including with some self-referential layering that never meaningfully develops. At one point early on, Greg and Tommy visit the site where James Dean died, a pilgrimage that at once nods to Franco’s breakthrough role as Dean and telegraphs one of the more ludicrous scenes in “The Room.” Dean becomes Greg and Tommy’s inspiration, a success story that they invoke while struggling to make it. But there’s no sense that either remotely grasps Dean’s art, which might have made their failure and “The Disaster Artist” more resonant.