James Franco’s true bromance has no room for style, wit, or originality.
The big question surrounding The Disaster Artist is do you need to see The Room first. The simple answer is no. And you shouldn’t have to, no more than you should have to have personally seen Abraham Lincoln deliver the “Gettysburg Address” before watching Lincoln or attended a live performance by Johnny Cash ahead of enjoying Walk the Line or suffered through Plan 9 From Outer Space in preparation for Ed Wood. Familiarity with the subject and material of any biopic can give you a different appreciation, of course, and fans of Tommy Wiseau’s 2003 cult film will surely have greater interest in and satisfaction from this movie about its making. But it also has to stand on its own.
Outside of the significance of it being a true story, The Disaster Artist is really just another bromantic comedy from members of the Judd Apatow troupe (Apatow even makes a cameo). James Franco, who also directed the movie, stars as Wiseau. His brother, Dave Franco, plays actor Greg Sestero, whose friendship with Wiseau led to the production of one of the most notoriously (and for some, estimably) bad movies of all time. They meet in a San Francisco acting class, bond over their shared dream of making it in Hollywood, move together to Los Angeles, and after no luck going down the traditional route decide to create their own breakout vehicle. Problem is, they haven’t the experience or the talent to do a proper job.
This is primarily Sestero’s story. The movie is based on his memoir (written with journalist Tom Bissell), “The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Film Ever Made,” in which Wiseau is a prominent yet supporting character. As Sestero, Dave Franco drives the narrative with a zestful earnestness, and the emotional weight comes from his character’s dealings with a friend who is jealous, controlling, and often unlikable but who is also valued as an inspiration and a resource. Dave Franco is the shining light of The Disaster Artist and continues to prove that he’s at least an equal of his older, more famous sibling, and consistently the more agreeable screen presence of the two brothers.
Dave Franco delivers the more substantial and interesting and genuine performance, but there’s no denying the main event is James Franco as Wiseau. Those who have seen and cherish The Room will come mainly for his mimicry, especially in reenactments of that movie’s more iconic moments. The portrayal of the thick-accented filmmaker is also the most memorable aspect for anyone who hasn’t seen Wiseau or The Room before. He’s just such a unique and commanding personality. It’s easy to mistake him for the lead (awards organizations certainly are), but he’s no protagonist. He’s a prop. We never get enough of an understanding of Wiseau, who remains an enigma in real life as well. He’s exotic but not compelling.
Portrayals of such distinctly outlandish figures present a problem in that they’re so easily seen as unbelievable and cartoonish. The real person seems like a caricature to begin with. Wiseau as a subject follows Truman Capote, Hunter S. Thompson, and Florence Foster Jenkins as someone difficult to play without going over the top. James Franco doesn’t necessarily overdo the portrayal, but he doesn’t ever make the character his own. He plays more to Wiseau’s quirks in his performance than is required and, as the movie’s storyteller, he oversells the character as an oddity. He lovingly mocks, as if trying to represent the fans’ ironic delight in Wiseau’s work through his portraiture of the filmmaker. The performance seems more a tribute to The Room’s following than to its creator.
There is a lot of fan service in the replication for the sake of replication, too. With biopics about people who’ve been on television or in movies, there’s a tendency for too much gratuitous re-creation of moments where there’s existing visual record to copy. The Disaster Artist gets excessive during the climactic premiere of The Room, as we watch the very first audience react to parts of the movie that will mean more to those in the know of their context. Then, as if to beat the Vimeo video essayists to the punch, there’s a comparison reel during the end credits presenting scenes from The Room side by side with redone versions shot for this film. It’s appealing to a segment of the audience, but it causes others to feel left out of an in-joke.
Most of the reenactments in the rest of the movie are actually more in service to the story and characters. Two scenes in particular showing the filming of specific parts of The Room are essential to the portrayal of Wiseau, in fact. There’s his first day of acting in his own movie, forgetting the lines he himself wrote and requiring multiple takes, which is as meaningful as it is humorous. A lot of movies about moviemaking have a similar montage, but here it’s more the reveal of a character beat than a mere comedy of errors. Then there’s a depiction of Wiseau’s improper process that went into shooting a sex scene, which exposes him as not just an inept director but also a tactless and insensitive one.
So the other question is do you need to see The Disaster Artist. Another simple answer: no. It’s not a bad movie, but it’s a bland one outside of Dave Franco’s winsome smile and the attraction and distraction of Wiseau as a fascinating mystery. It’s a fine, surprisingly conventional look at two passionate guys who learn to get over the possibility of people laughing at them and their craft. Guys who prove better than anyone else before that fame is about determination and luck, and not at all to do with skill or worth. Guys whose on-again, off-again friendship isn’t remotely the most curious element of the tale of a one-in-a-million-chance accident of a terrible movie becoming a sensation. But it is the simplest element in the film’s purpose to amuse.
The amusement, though, is something of a diversion, because Sestero’s story is a comedy while Wiseau’s arc is pretty sad. If you focus too much on the latter character, The Disaster Artist inadvertently becomes a more serious story, ironically inverse to the way The Room unintentionally became a laugh riot. The fact that the happy ending for The Room — if you believe its legacy to even be one — is all in the postscript is a final indication that The Disaster Artist isn’t that concerned with the Hollywood fairy tale angle and is all about the true bromance. As a result, for something based around such an extraordinary phenomenon and involving such a remarkable real person, the film is ultimately rather ordinary and unoriginal.