The Disaster Artist, 2017, 3 stars

Oh, hi, movie!

The Disaster Artist is a love letter to bad cinema

Image copyright Good Universe / New Line Cinema / A24

Exclusive to MeierMovies.com, November 27, 2017

Why do we love bad movies? It’s not logical. We know they are unworthy of our attention, especially when thousands of talented, conscientious filmmakers are struggling every day to get their art seen and appreciated. One could even say that this shallow fascination with crap is harming our culture and ourselves while … oh, hi, Tommy Wiseau movie!!

Yes, James Franco has directed and produced a film about Z-movie king Wiseau and his creation of The Room (2003), one of the five worst theatrically released (sort of) films of the century. (If you’re trying to guess a couple of the others, here’s a hint: Think of the same San Francisco Bay setting and swap “oiseau” for Wiseau.) But, like Wiseau’s filmmaking, I digress.

The Disaster Artist is the much-anticipated biopic of Wiseau, focusing on the four years leading up to the making of The Room, the actual making of the film and Wiseau’s friendship with fellow actor Greg Sestero, who wrote the book upon which the film is based. Franco plays Wiseau while his brother, Dave, plays Sestero. In supporting roles are Seth Rogan, Megan Mullally, Sharon Stone, Bryan Cranston, Zac Efron, Kristen Bell, J.J. Abrams and a smorgasbord of other stars, many of whom are playing themselves in funny, though misguided, mini-tributes to The Room. Also misguided is the handheld camera, which was a poor choice considering the subject and the fact that Wiseau never used it in The Room. (It would have been nice to mimic Wiseau’s filmmaking style, as Tim Burton did in his far superior Ed Wood. Franco’s odd use of music might actually be seen as a stylistic nod to Wiseau, or it could just be bad in its own right.)

The film has more than its share of moments that aficionados of The Room will appreciate. Most memorable perhaps are Judd Apatow (as himself) giving Wiseau some brutal career advice and Wiseau discovering James Dean’s famous “you’re tearing me apart” line from Rebel Without a Cause. (Wiseau, fittingly, remembered the line wrong, thinking it’s “you’re taking me apart.”) And there’s a brilliant end-credits montage of clips from The Disaster Artist side by side with those of The Room. Only then do you realize how seriously Franco took this project. But will these moments mean much to those who either haven’t seen The Room or find it unworthy of all this attention? Perhaps not.

No review of The Disaster Artist would be complete without a discussion of Franco. Love him or hate him, you can’t argue that he threw himself tirelessly into this labor of love, delivering a performance that is odd both because he’s mimicking someone who is odd and because the acting itself is just plain weird. He gets Wiseau’s accent sort of right, but it’s mixed with so much mumbling (even more than Wiseau himself) that it’s often difficult to decipher. Sometimes the performance seems spot on (even uncanny in the actor’s physical transformation), and sometimes Franco seems to just be goofing off. Either way, you won’t soon forget it.

Surprisingly, the film doesn’t reveal the true mysteries of Wiseau, which are partially exposed in the Sestero book. For instance, Sestero strongly suggests that Wiseau grew up in Eastern Europe before moving to France and then to the United States. (We now know he’s probably from Poland.) He had a troubled youth and chose to forget his past by reinventing himself. And Sestero even claims that Wiseau probably made his money selling discount clothes and other merchandise in San Francisco’s warehouse district. Those are fascinating (though unproven) stories that should have been a central part of The Disaster Artist, but because Franco and writers Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber chose to lampoon Wiseau more than fully explain him, the mysteries stay buried.

Despite that overemphasis on comedy, the film has some surprisingly effective, though brief, moments of drama, particularly toward the end, when we finally see into Wiseau’s heart and realize that this badly flawed individual simply wants what the rest of us want: to be appreciated.

The Disaster Artist won’t emotionally tear you apart (Lisa), but it will make you laugh while reminding you that every filmmaker has a unique voice – even if that filmmaker believes “backlighting” is the amount of illumination intended for his gluteus maximus and thinks “color correction” is what Al Jolson did to his face in The Jazz Singer.

Copyright 2017 © Cameron Meier

For more on Wiseau, see my review of  The Neighbors.