Film review: ‘Disaster Artist’ tip-toes through reality, fiction


Initially, I thought it would be a wasted exercise to watch “The Disaster Artist” if you hadn’t seen “The Room,” one of those dumpster-fire spectacles that have enjoyed cult status in our post-irony age not only for the sheer squeamishness of enduring the film itself but also the eccentricity of the writer-director-enigma-star, Tommy Wiseau.

It all depends on how you take James Franco’s adaptation of Greg Sestero’s written account of the making of the infamously bad film: Is it commentary on film production itself? An immersive and interactional microcosm of Wiseau’s perspective on stardom and fame á la Being John Malkovich? A celebration of Hollywood dreams?

The film alternates between embracing the individual viewer and the collective appreciation of bad, bad art, and while we are often laughing uproariously at the audacity of the story unfolding, there are moments of sadness where we fear we shouldn’t.

For the film’s duration, the audience tiptoes on a tenuous wall separating truth and fiction, reality and realness, and reinvention of the past. Perhaps Tommy Wiseau (amazingly played by James Franco) is a modern-day Holly Golightly, echoing her description by Martin Balsam’s character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s: “She’s a phony. But she’s a real phony. You know why? Because she honestly believes all this phony junk that she believes.” Whether we see Wiseau coloring his long, wavy hair or scurrying up a sound-stage trellis bellowing, “Stella!”, we aren’t sure what we are seeing, or how much of his persona is controlled and customized for each individual he meets because his behavior changes constantly. Enamored with Hollywood and heroes and celebrity, Tommy looks on the present from the perspective of his future self watching a biography of his now-famous life. While he is making The Room, he hires a separate film crew to document the production, so that he can control the portrayal of the drama behind the scenes. Ultimately, Tommy believes in his curated persona and his ability to control how others see “Tommy’s World,” and he fully immerses himself in the hero’s journey.

The others who orbit his world have to constantly reevaluate their levels of tolerance for his gonzo behavior and mysterious resources. For most of his cast and crew, a paycheck is the salve for his volatile temper and lack of preparation or skill, and there is a constant shadow over his finances and background. Despite his meandering Eastern European accent, Tommy insists that he is from New Orleans — which might be true at some point in his life as he picks and chooses when to be technical and when to be vague. He certainly has the means to afford multiple apartments and film equipment, plus handle all the paychecks of his struggling actors. The biggest laughs often come from the reactions of these actors who choose to exist in the surreal bubble of Los Angeles and mimic real life on a movie set, where Tommy spends a lot of money recreating an alley instead of shooting in an actual alley because “this real Hollywood movie.” It has to be created to look real.

As Greg Sestero, Dave Franco is the wide-eyed acolyte of Tommy’s bizarre intensity, accompanying him from San Francisco to Los Angeles in search of stardom, while Tommy sees Greg as the All-American doll that lit up the big screen like James Dean. Greg is his adrenaline shot to give Hollywood another try, eventually as a creator of his own work that mirrors the construct of his worldview. It is Greg that keeps Tommy from being paraded around like the Pope of Fools, but his friendship and allegiance are tested as the bloated production stretches far beyond its shooting schedule and Tommy becomes more and more of the grotesque monster he loudly claims not to be. As both the film and the film-within-the-film reflect more of “Tommy’s World,” either from the costumes to the set design to the script, his god-complex combined with the heightened tension and self-aware camera work dare us to suspend our disbelief a second at a time.

As we watch the audience watch the screen at the long-anticipated premiere, we are watching ourselves cringe and cower, then crack up laughing and cringe again. We have no choice but to reimagine the film in reflection of its creator, turning a drama into comedy by way of error and heartache, laughing through the pain. The truest moments are when we reconsider why we find all of this so funny, while also wondering whether we are appreciating mimicry and nostalgia or an original work of art.

‘The Disaster Artist’ (2017)

STARRING James Franco, Dave Franco, Ari Graynor, Seth Rogen, Jacki Weaver, Paul Scheer, Alison Brie, June Diane Raphael, Josh Hutcherson, Zac Efron

DIRECTOR James Franco