SXSW Review – ‘The Disaster Artist’ Paints A Touching, Uneven Portrait of Living The Dream

‘The Disaster Artist’ Paints A Touching, Uneven Portrait of Living The Dream

James Franco’s long-awaited film about the making of ‘The Room’ is a hilarious yet heavily misguided exercise in dramatization.

The following is a review of a “work-in-progress” cut. The film itself could be very different by the time it comes out.

Festival premieres are almost always surreal occasions, but Sunday night’s world premiere of The Disaster Artist took that to a whole new level. Namely, there’s a scene towards the end of the film in which James Franco’s Tommy Wiseau is premiering his film The Room to a packed theater not unlike the Paramount. “This is my movie,” he tells the unwitting audience. “This is my life.” And seated in the real audience Sunday night was the real-life Tommy Wiseau himself, watching the film for the first time.

Chances are if you are reading this that you are familiar with the unusual success story that is The Room. The infamous “romantic drama” went from stinker to phenomenon faster than you could say “spoons”, its bizarre cinematic language and its even more bizarre writer/director/star connecting with audiences in search of some good midnight laughs. And perhaps in that sense, The Disaster Artist is as much of a midnight movie as The Room itself. Except Franco’s film is not “so bad it’s good”, it’s just sometimes good, sometimes bad, and it has to be held accountable for the heavily misguided way it approaches its central story.

The Disaster Artist is about many things, from filmmaking to the nature of fame, but it is mostly about the strange (terrifying?) friendship between Tommy and Greg (Dave Franco). We first meet them in an effective, oddly touching sequence in which Greg is struggling to deliver an emotional performance in his acting class. Upon sitting down, he (and the rest of his class) witness an outrageous follow-up performance from Tommy, whose jet black hair and Grim Reaper-esque getup immediately shroud him in an aura of mystery. He screams “Stella” and climbs up the rafters, falling to the ground and crying out through his thick, forever ambiguous accent. A bold introduction for James’ portrayal of this most strange man, but the gamble pays off: Franco’s pained, oblivious and lonely Wiseau is indeed the only element of the film that truly works.

From there, we see the birth of a friendship between Greg and Tommy, the latter of which finds himself utterly fascinated and even inspired by this strange man seemingly devoid of the slightest bit of self-awareness. On Tommy’s (unexplainably vast) coin, they move to L.A. together, where they attempt to make a name for themselves as actors. While Greg manages to find representation (but little else), Tommy begins to develop a deep-seated jealousy and protectiveness of him. But when the pressure and failures of the city begin to get to his psyche, Wiseau decides to make a movie himself, and the rest is cinematic history.

The shared dream between Greg and Tommy – not to make great art, but rather to be famous – is the essence of The Disaster Artist, and perhaps what could have saved it were it not for its schlocky composition and condensed, tonally inconsistent screenplay. At its core, the true story behind the making of The Room is a funhouse mirror reflection of the pursuit of success in Hollywood, and just the craziness of it in general. Like La La Land or Boogie Nights before it, this film is about dreamers who want to make a name for themselves, no matter the cost. Except these dreamers don’t exactly have the talent to do so, but that doesn’t stop them. It’s this endearing persistence that makes The Disaster Artist so oddly moving, and while it’s James’ performance as Wiseau that gives the film its humanity, it’s his direction that keeps it from being anything other than good fun.

The film immediately gets off to a shaky start by precluding the narrative with a series of talking head interviews, featuring celebrities ranging from Kristen Bell to J.J. Abrams discussing their love for the original movie. It’s a jarring, off-puttingly sentimental move that feels ripped from a TV special on the film, and indeed, it prepares the audience for something that works more as a fan-service-centered companion piece to the original film rather than a standalone piece. While the opening may be the film may be trying to provide context for its unruly pop culture significance, it comes off instead as a lack of confidence in the story to speak for itself.

Franco fills his frame with an extraordinary cast of comedic and dramatic actors and yet doesn’t know what to really do with them (most of the film is shot in boring mediums, in handheld no less). The film is also a mess in how it progresses through the story, hopping from month to month, year to year with little room (sorry) to let these characters truly develop or interact past the surface level weirdness of it all. Usually fantastic at working within the confines of a studio release runtime, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber’s screenplay condenses the events of the book into a more formulaic and convenient story than what actually happened, and the film suffers greatly because of it. While it’s hard to imagine how one could properly adapt the wild and unsettling events of the book into a single film, it definitely doesn’t look like this.

That Sunday night as I watched the film, I had never been in an audience as jovial and enthusiastic. The audience went wild each time the film recreated a scene from the original and roared in laughter with each cringeful interaction between Tommy and the crew of his film. This is indeed a fun watch, and with the accompaniment of the original (which screened directly afterwards at the Paramount), it’s a delightful ode to the absurdity of chasing your dreams, and the refusal to let the naysayers tell you otherwise. Maybe in that way Franco is like Wiseau, having the time of his life creating a singular and strange work of art in spite of his shortcomings as a director.

“Thank you for enjoying my comedic film,” Tommy tells the audience after their uproarious reaction to his masterpiece. Who knows if Franco wanted this to be a feature-length Funny or Die skit or a deeper, contemplative look at fame and friendship. Franco doesn’t do enough here to make it work as either, but can you blame him for trying?

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