Prince of Dorkness
The older I get, the less patience I have for so-bad-it’s-good culture. I get why it’s so appealing to the young — I’ve been there, kids, I understand! — but the closer I get to the eternal silence of the grave, the less willing I am to spend two hours of my precious time watching Turkish Dr. Strange or whatever sub-par heap of shit is making the rounds. It’s not that I don’t have a finely tuned sense of irony, believe me. It’s just that I’m mortal, and very busy. So, for the most part, you can miss me wit this you-gotta-see-this level of camp or kitsch or whatever we’ve decided to call it; I’ve got grim movies about post-war Italian families trying to ward off starvation to watch.
The Room, however, is a special case. Part of what makes it so amazing is timing; it appeared on our cultural radar just around the time people started aging out of Rocky Horror Picture Show fandom America was screaming, or at least mildly whining, for another midnight-movie-style collective goof, and along came The Room. But it’s not just that; The Room is genuinely bizarre in that “why didn’t anyone stop this?*” way that you don’t see much anymore in this era of risk-averse corporate filmmaking; and the fact that Tommy Wiseau remains such an enigmatic figure in the internet age, where almost nothing remains secret for long, gives it that extra frisson of lunacy.
So it was probably only a matter of time before someone got around to making a movie of The Disaster Artist, a memoir about the making of the latest and greatest candidate for the title of worst film of all time. That the someone was James Franco isn’t really a surprise; like Wiseau, Franco has been accused of having an ego that outstrips his talent, and has indulged his private obsessions at the expense of popular appeal and understanding. The difference isn’t purely that Franco just has more money; Wiseau’s film really does exist on an entirely other level of competence that suggests that he might actually be a clever alien who is obsessed with Earth art forms but doesn’t really know how they work. But he does seem like the kind of person who can get into Tommy Wiseau’s headspace and live to tell the tale, so if someone was going to adapt the book (by Greg Sestero, Wiseau’s “best friend” and the actor who played Mark in The Room), it might as well be him.
Franco’s real stroke of genius is casting his own brother, Dave, in the role of Sestero. The entire movie’s dramatic and comedic chemistry depends on the audience believing that any sane person would indulge Tommy Wiseau’s obsession to the degree that Sestero does, and Dave Franco — an actor perhaps best known for having his name forever followed by “Oh, yeah, isn’t he James Franco’s brother?” — probably has a lifetime of that sort of thing to draw on. It’s a real dynamic duo act, and however much it reflects or doesn’t reflect the actual experience of les freres Franco, they’re absolutely terrific together on screen. The rest of the cast is entirely superfluous, which is why the production team of Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen wisely decided to fill the roles with amusing cameos from their comedy buddies: not a single performance could not have been done away with in deference to watching Franco the Younger sheepishly follow around Franco the Elder as he goes buck-wild all over late-’90s Hollywood, but it’s still fun to see the likes of Hannibal Buress, Alison Brie, Jason Mantzoukas, Megan Mullally, Bob Odenkirk, Casey Wilson, and even Rogen himself show up.
The Disaster Artist, slight thing that it is, wisely shies away from some of the darker qualities of the actual story, and doesn’t spend too much time asking uncomfortable questions about why Tommy Wiseau seems to have such a problem with women, or where exactly he gets his money from. Sestero seems like a man who has become entirely at ease with his role as a talent-lite pretty boy who lucked into the orbit of one of the most singular people in the entertainment industry, and that shows through nicely here, while sidestepping the uglier side of Wiseau’s manipulative and often hostile behavior. There’s two ways this movie could have gone, and choosing to portray Wiseau as an overenthusiastic dreamer who lures people into his weird perspective is the right choice. There’s always a possibility that we’ll find out that he paid for that big billboard with Russian mob money or something in the future, but for now, barring him being an actual vampire, The Disaster Artist made the right call in being a flimsy but enjoyable comedy and not a principled but over-serious drama.
In terms of comedy, The Disaster Artist really doesn’t have to exert itself very much. When you’re working with something as inherently ridiculous as The Room, all you have to do is step back and let your source material do the talking — something it does so well that during the end credits, it literally shows clips from the original movie side-by-side with its own re-creations. (Given its box office, there have to be a lot of people who have seen The Disaster Artist — probably even a majority — who haven’t seen The Room, and I frankly cannot imagine how it must have played for them.) When it tries to introduce original material, it sometimes falls flat (Tommy’s immediate claim that he intended his movie to be a comedy all along is a bit too on the nose), but other times soars (when asked how many people get to make their own movie, Wiseau/Franco’s deadpan “A thousand?” is one of the biggest laughs I’ve gotten at a movie all year).
All of this leads us back to an essential question: is it possible to make great art out of bad art? No, it isn’t; The Disaster Artist isn’t great art. But it’s pretty good! Perhaps a better question here is whether it’s necessary. We still have The Room, after all, and it’s ‘better’, in the sense of being more original and more shocking (albeit in a bad way) than the film it inspired. On the other hand, the very fact that something as misguided and godforsaken as The Room could actually make a profit, let alone inspire other people to make their own art about it, is a testament to the animating spirit that creates the likes of Tommy Wiseau in the first place. That may not be great art, but it’s something worth recognizing.