Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

The Disaster Artist

Grade : A- Year : 2017 Director : James Franco Running Time : 1hr 44min Genre : , ,
Movie review score

By the time his self-financed “premiere” screening of “The Room” finishes up, and he takes the stage to speak to the audience that has been laughing uproariously at his magnum opus, there’s a feeling that Tommy Wiseau has made peace with the fact that his film is, quite frankly, terrible, and that’s why people enjoyed it. That’s an interesting note to leave a film about the making of a film on, but it’s the most honest one that James Franco and his screenwriters, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (“(500) Days of Summer”), could have found for this film. It’s also refreshing for someone who, before it was released, was kind of dreading this film.

“Mystery Science Theater 3000” and its prime off-shoot projects, Cinematic Titanic and RiffTrax, has been a formative part of my movie consumption over the years, allowing me to appreciate the pleasures of watching schlocky films, but it’s also enhanced the way I look at movies myself, when it comes to my own critical eye. I understand failures in storytelling and basic filmmaking craft better because of the ways Joel Hodgson and co. have shown me films with running comedic commentaries, and it’s helped me not only in seeing some genuinely awful movies, but also focused me on finding fun even in the worst experiences. That can be helpful when presented with really shoestring productions, or films that can’t quite find the tone, because then you look at them through a different prism. Having attempted at making films myself helps with that, also; because you’ve tried your hand at it, as well, you understand the struggle, and can appreciate someone’s failed attempts at making movies more. If it appears I am more favorable towards films than critical, it’s because of the ways these two truths of my own life (my appreciation of the satirical wit of MST3K, and my tries at filmmaking myself) have imprinted further knowledge on the process on me.

RiffTrax was my first experience with Wiseau’s “The Room,” and, quite honestly, it’s the only one I can genuinely tolerate. I tried watching the film without the riff several years ago when I decided I wanted to review the film, and it was painful. Of course, it might be a different experience with an audience, but the film is just too uncomfortable on the whole for me to appreciate without the roadmap RiffTrax provide. Looking back at my review, it’s hilarious now to think I was wondering some of the questions I was about the film, and how Wiseau got it made, but I didn’t know the history of the film like I do now. That’s probably because The Disaster Artist, Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell’s 2013 book of the making of the film, and the basis for Franco’s movie, hadn’t come out yet. After that, the story of the making of “The Room” grew to mythic proportions, and Wiseau really seemed to take his place as the modern-day Ed Wood, the standard-bearer for bad filmmakers everywhere.

It’s with this idea, that Wiseau had become a filmmaker to be idolized akin to Wood, that I started to become uncomfortable with the idea of Franco’s film in the past few months. I like Ed Wood, which is to say, I admire what he tried to do, even if he was bad at doing it. Some of this comes from my love for Tim Burton’s 1994 biopic, but it also comes from watching his films, which are terrible, but have a genuine affection for not just the stories they’re telling that shines through, but the process of making movies. I do not get any of this from “The Room,” and even now, having seen “The Disaster Artist,” I still don’t. Ed Wood seemed to approach filmmaking from the gaze of making films for other people to enjoy as he lives his dream of being a filmmaker, while Wiseau was making “The Room” as a way in to a Hollywood that had rejected he and Sestero (played in this film by Franco’s brother, Dave), two actors who just wanted to act. One thing I was worried about with Franco’s film was that it was going to lionize Wiseau the same way people have Wood over the years, and I give a lot of credit to Franco for NOT doing that in his film. His film is clear-headed about Wiseau and “The Room,” and that makes it engaging to watch as Franco’s Wiseau sucks Sestero into his view of the world and art, which is as crazy as his unrecognizable accent.

In many ways, “The Disaster Artist” is similar to the “comedy of errors” films about filmmaking such as “Ed Wood” and “Bowfinger,” but Franco doesn’t veer into that direction completely, which is fascinating, and part of the reason I had to sleep on writing this review after finally seeing the film. Because the film is from Sestero’s point-of-view as opposed to Wiseau’s, which makes sense since it was based on Sestero’s book, that changes the perspective of the film, and I’m almost not sure if that was the right direction. If the film had transformed the story into Wiseau’s POV of the events after Sestero first sees Wiseau do his unique interpretation of Tennessee Williams in an acting class, I might have felt like the arc of realization about his film Wiseau had in the film, and the fact that it IS Wiseau’s realization, not Greg’s, would have made for a more straightforward and compelling narrative. For much of the film, Sestero (played well by Dave Franco), is a passive protagonist, at the will of James’s Wiseau, looking on with befuddlement as Wiseau tries to make this film. He has a romantic arc with Amber (a bartender played by Dave’s real-life wife, Alison Brie), and it is important for him to be the main character, so to speak, when an opportunity to have a role in “Malcolm in the Middle,” and the lead-up to the premiere, are considered, but maybe the film would have been better as an “Ed Wood,” with Wiseau as the main character, because he’s the one whose actions drive the narrative. It’s an interesting pickle this film finds itself in, and I’m not quite sure what the right way out of it could have been.

My uncertainty about Franco’s film, and how I successful I think it is, extends to his performance, in general, as Wiseau. It’s impossible to say that he doesn’t throw himself into the role of the enigmatic and bizarre auteur, affecting Wiseau’s weird manner and accent, but I don’t know if I would characterize it as great work from the actor. I certainly don’t see it on the level of his dramatic work in “127 Hours” or his comedic explosion in “Pineapple Express,” but I don’t know that anyone else could have played Wiseau better. That feels like a perfect summary for my experience in “anticipating” “The Disaster Artist,” and how it immortalizes the surreal history of “The Room”- it does what it does as well as I think anyone could have done it, even if it doesn’t do it as well as other filmmakers have done when it comes to their subjects. If that doesn’t seem to make sense, it’s certainly of a piece with the film whose making it chronicles.

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