Monday, December 4, 2017

Review: THE DISASTER ARTIST, the finest film about Hollywood foibles since Ed Wood

I have seen The Room twice now, both times with a relatively large crowd of eager viewers. And both times, it's gone over like gangbusters. From raucous laughter to outright revulsion, Tommy Wiseau's wholly unintentional comedy is, without a doubt, this century's Plan 9 from Outer Space.

And in that vein, much like Plan 9's Ed Wood, Wiseau is now receiving the red carpet biopic treatment that he was denied. Unlike Wood, Wiseau is alive to see it as well as participating in the promotion and benefiting from the same. It's quite a turn of events for a figure who was a source of derision for so long, to suddenly find himself the toast of the industry in a picture glorifying the very making of his long-held reputation as a terrible filmmaker. But thanks to James Franco, who himself is no stranger to outsider art, The Disaster Artist turns the making of one of the (best) worst films of all time into one of this year's best cinematic experiences.

For those coming in wondering what the fuss is about, Franco plays the above-mentioned Wiseau, a man of basically unknown origin (we never learn how old he is, where his accent hails from, or how he seems to be able to pull from an endless source of income). Early on, Wiseau takes the 19 year old Greg Sestaro (Dave Franco) under his wing and, despite Sestaro's mother's protestations, they move to Wiseau's totally unused LA apartment to try and make their dreams of Hollywood stardom a reality. But despite Sestaro's good looks and Wiseau's endless enthusiasm, fame and opportunity continually elude them. And after a joking comment from the younger actor about how they should "just make their own movie", Wiseau decides that's just the thing they need to conquer Hollywood.

There's a wild bit of kismet on display here, with Franco pulling the exact same double duty as Wiseau, both starring and directing, and without a doubt The Disaster Artist fully revolves around his orbit. Franco produces what is, without doubt, the best performance of his career, even outstripping his much more subtle everyman work in 127 Hours. More than mere mimicry, Franco outright becomes Wiseau, or at least such a close approximation, to the point where the actor and role become difficult to extricate. This is the same kind of full-blown transformative character work Franco employed on Spring Breakers, but taken to a new extreme. His performance is so captivating that everyone else feels a bit flatter by comparison, despite the fact that many of his costars are doing some pretty decent work inhabiting people you've probably never heard of, and would have no reason to unless you watched The Room.

Which begs an interesting question. How much would one appreciate The Disaster Artist if you haven't seen The Room before? I've seen it argued both ways. And as always, I think the truth is somewhere in the middle. It's easy to imagine there might be an element of befuddlement for the uninitiated, particularly when the filming of the movie itself begins, especially when it feels as though the characters are trying to give voice to the same criticisms of The Room that viewers have observed for years. But the script by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber is cleanly structured enough, with simple universal themes, built around friendship and trying to subvert expectations that others have cast upon you, that newcomers will find a lot to hang their hats on - along with Franco, presiding over the best directorial work of his career, as he casts aside much of his more outre impulses and delivers a film that zips along from point to point in a highly entertaining fashion. I've seen it twice now already, and I'd be delighted to take it in again, it's so compulsively fun and watchable in a way that Awards season fodder so rarely is.

The Disaster Artist is basically built around the relationship between Wiseau and Sestaro, and does little to stray from that, even during the making of their infamous project. Other characters come and go, but we don't even learn many of their names, which is fine - because they continually pass like ships in the night through the narrative. This allows for a good deal of stunt casting, some of which works (Seth Rogen, Ari Graynor, and Jackie Weaver all stand-out especially), while others start to feel more like an SNL bit. But it's all so fleeting, that no amount of Franco bringing his pals on-board really distracts too much at all what is a really rich bromance. It's especially heartening to see the elder Franco never take a tact with Tommy that demeans him as a person. He certainly challenges his decision making process, and how he actively abused his crew during production of The Room, but there's never a point where we as an audience are laughing at him. If nothing else, it's clear that Franco sees Wiseau as a kindred spirit, even down to their shared relationship with the work of James Dean - Franco got one of his earlier big breaks playing the iconic actor, whereas Wiseau's most famous line in The Room: "You're tearing me apart, Lisa!" is his own tribute to Dean's most notable role.

With all that said, the truth is Dave Franco's Sestaro is actually the protagonist, and his straight man performance provides a strong sounding board for which Tommy's egotism and madcap attitude can pay off. The Francos, obviously quite comfortable with one another, are able to produce a believable bond between this unlikely pair that drives The Room into cinematic infamy, and The Disaster Artist into greatness. It provides both a satirical and loving look at the art of bad filmmaking, the thirst for Hollywood stardom - lack of talent notwithstanding, and a canvas upon which we get what is basically going to the be James Franco performance to end all performances. It also finally cements him as a filmmaker of note in his own right. Pretty ironic to say the least.

Also, it has the best needle drop of the year.


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