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I’ve never ever understood the consummate hatred that certain sectors of the internet has for James Franco, and, like much of the hate surrounding his Oscar co-host Anne Hathaway, much of it is rooted in how they come across to the audience. Hathaway seems to be the eternal theater kid, whose good work has constantly undermined that thesis at every turn, and Franco’s deal has always been that he’s been too pretentious for his own good. Want to get a degree at NYU while making movies, James? You’re an asshole who’s ruining cinema for everybody. Want to try your hand at making a series of decently well-received literary adaptations of impossibly difficult-to-film novels? Psh, like anybody would ever watch those. Want to write some books? Here, let me grab my friend over at the New Yorker to tell you to stay in your lane, dude. We want him to be genuine, and the dude just seems to defy that every single time: He looks like he does, and he seems to be interested in doing whatever the hell he really wants to do, from starring on a soap opera to producing documentaries about Kink.com and those lost minutes from William Friedkin’s Cruising.
Now, Franco’s placed himself in the role of the ultimate shat-upon artist who’s learned to roll with the punches: That of Tommy Wiseau, the legendary cult director of 2003’s The Room, which is held by many to be one of the worst movies ever made (I’d argue that any given year sees two or three movies even more repulsive than this one, but whatever) and, if you’ve got anything resembling ass in your pants to dance with, one of the most entertaining. Based on the book by the original’s co-lead Greg Sestero, The Disaster Artist marks a dramatic career shift for Franco as a director, or at least it will in the critical consciousness: he’s finally made a truly excellent little film, stacked to the brim with Hollywood’s finest talent, one that will delight fans of Wiseau’s work and those who haven’t even had the chance to throw spoons at a movie screen. He’s paid enough attention to the small details to make the quirks of that production and of the auteur behind it feel both authentic and funny, and he never loses sight on a script level of the drama inherent in Sestero and Wiseau’s story.
We start with a young Greg Sestero (Dave Franco, in what might be the best role of an already excellent career) struggling in an acting class, trying to get over his incredible shyness at a Bay Area improv class. After a particularly bad stint on stage, he takes a seat and is soon forced to watch an absolutely crazy performance by some fellow named Tommy Wiseau (Franco), who takes the stage and collapses to the floor, screaming “Stella!” as if he were a totally unhinged Marlon Brando waiting for the orderlies to bring out the syringe full of sedative. Greg chuckles a bit at first, but he becomes attracted to the guy’s positive allure and his absolutely insane confidence. Sure enough, he and Tommy become fast friends, and Greg lets certain things slide that might be deal-breakers for other friendships: Wiseau won’t tell him where he grew up and where he got his accent (a weird Eastern-European brogue that Wiseau tries to pass off as creole) or how old he is or how he made his seemingly-immense fortune. After a couple of intense bonding experiences (such as Greg introducing Tommy to James Dean and their subsequent middle-of-the-night road trip to visit the spot where he died in a fiery car crash), the two decide to move to Los Angeles and strike it out on their own. Greg and Tommy struggle, of course, but Wiseau has a particularly hard time with it. So he decides to go outside of the Hollywood mode and self-finance his own film.
The genesis of The Room and its filming is also the beginning of the end of the intense brotherly relationship that the two share. Greg falls in love with a bartender (Allison Brie, Dave Franco’s real-world wife) and the new couple irks Tommy, who thinks that his friend is abandoning him and their artistic dreams for her. Tommy, meanwhile, does a fantastic job of alienating himself from the crew, from the DP (Paul Scheer) to the Script Supervisor (Seth Rogan), and winds up going on a power trip for much of the shoot, abusing the other actors in the process. It’s to Franco’s credit that he’s able to make such a divisive and, frankly, weird figure like Wiseau both relatable and as horrifying as he ultimately becomes over the shoot — it’s what happens when that wounded and Eastern-European accented puppy decides he’s sick of being kicked around by everybody and starts biting back. His accent and his mannerisms are absolutely on point (which a montage of side-by-side comparisons before the credits makes totally plain), but never once does it feel exploitative or weird. He’s just a quirky man living his truth in the only way that he knows how, and Franco, I believe, deeply empathizes with that.
It helps that he’s working with his own brother, as they’re able to communicate that level of platonic friendship really necessary to get both of the men over in the audience’s hearts. Both of them have intense comic chops, and they’re put to great use here, with Dave’s wonderfully expressive face selling most of the truly great laugh-lines we’re given from James over the course of the film. The stacked cast, as well, each has their own individual moment with Franco’s Wiseau, and almost all of them are totally up for the task of dealing with his tremendous presence. These stunt-cast cameos can often be pretty distracting: Judd Apatow shows up for a minute “inspire” Tommy with the idea to break out of the studio system and self-finance a movie, Sharon Stone works as Greg’s objectifying and cold agent, and Bryan Cranston stops by late in the film to try and give Greg his big break on Malcolm in the Middle as a lumberjack. But I’m hesitant to totally fault Franco for using his showbiz connections and the legacy of The Room to secure talent and to provide a semi-realistic portrait of how Hollywood looks and works. I’ll admit that of the fun comes from this stunt-casting, as well, but I promise I won’t spoil much more for you, but generally the goodwill the movie earns on the part of its leads excuses its occasional indulgence as well.
While the drama and the comedy bookending the shoot is all solid, it’s in the actual nuts-and-bolts of the shoot that Franco finds his greatest source of humor and his most compelling pacing. He’s so attentive to the details of the actual set without drawing any ridiculous attention to them- the constantly present greenscreens, the recreations of alleyways right outside of the soundstage that they’re shooting on, the fact that Wiseau shot the film on both celluloid and digital tape- and they all help to highlight what’s so unique and bizarre about the making of this film. Mainly, it just messes with our knowledge of how film sets operate and flips it all on its head. It’s absolutely wonderful to watch the origins of the “Oh, Hi Mark” scene (you know the one, you’ve probably seen it in the announcement trailer), and it goes even further than that in the final product. It’s as if Franco took bits and pieces from Living in Oblivion and applied them to a stylistic flourishes of a Jody Hill film, and it’s a combination that pays off in spades. Much of his direction feels invisible, which is what you’re going to get when you’re dealing with performances of this particular magnitude and quality.
Plenty of comparisons will be made to Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, which boasts a visual flair and technical accomplishment on a level that Franco isn’t even trying to go for, but I’ve got to say that I prefer this film significantly more for reasons that I don’t totally comprehend (recency bias, perhaps?) and look forward to exploring over the coming months. What matters is that James Franco has made himself one hell of a film, no matter if you’ve seen the movie he’s in perpetual conversation with in style and tone. The Disaster Artist is a tremendous treat for all interested and excited about the filmmaking process and terrible cinema, and I really hope that Franco kept the ultimate homage close to his chest: I hope that he shot a version of The Room with the cast that he assembled for this. It couldn’t be any worse than the real thing, right?