by Philip Price
Full transparency: I love Hollywood stories. This fact may be questioned when I tell you that I haven't yet read actor Greg Sestero and journalist Tom Bissell's book that documents the behind-the-scenes look at the making of, "the greatest bad movie ever made" that is “The Room,” but I assure you I am. I know, I know-this may be an even less convincing statement when I tell you that I've still yet to see Tommy Wiseau's 2003 film that Sestero and Bissell's book, The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, The Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made, is based on which James Franco has now adapted into a movie of his own with “The Disaster Artist,” but I assure you-I am. I listen to the You Must Remember This podcast, if that helps my credibility at all. The point being that, even without having little to no reference point beyond the handful of clips I've seen of “The Room” on YouTube Franco's “The Disaster Artist” is still very much an accessible and easy to understand piece of work that is as much about chasing one's dreams of stardom and realizing your own passions into a formidable career as it is a good movie about a really bad movie. That said, I loved this movie in a way I kind of haven't loved a movie in a long time. I mean, I've loved other movies this year and loved other movies more, but there is this unique relationship with “The Disaster Artist” in that it is a movie made completely endearing by the total lack of awareness of its main character and the complete willingness of the second lead to fling himself into whatever he must do to make his ambitions become reality. Sure, some of these decisions are ill-advised, but the point is that, for an aspiring artist of any kind that feels the industry is designed to keep you out, “The Disaster Artist” offers a portrait of a couple of guys who decided to take things into their own hands and build their careers on their own backs in the most bizarre and questionable way possible. The idea that this story is being re-created by two brothers whom Hollywood has accepted with open arms and who book consistent, high-profile work is a little ironic, but so is the existence of this movie at all. This caveat of Hollywood elite making more money off of the (once) failed aspirations of those looking for a way in aside, “The Disaster Artist” is not a movie that looks down on those who want to create, who want to make movies, and who want to be actors, but rather it is a movie about embracing the struggle that finds great affection for the drive of these people that is made into a story worth telling for the pure mystery and oddity at the center of it that is Tommy Wiseau.
It's 1998 in San Francisco and Sestero (Dave Franco) is a 19-year old who has had some prominent modeling gigs, but who wants to be an actor and is attending the American Conservatory Theatre for acting lessons in his hometown. We see that Greg, despite his desire to be an actor is a rather timid personality and scared to expose too much of his emotional vulnerability as pointed out by his instructor (a nice little cameo from Melanie Griffith) whereas when Griffith's character asks for someone who can really lay it all out on the stage we get our introduction to James Franco's Tommy who performs this sprawling scene from “A Streetcar Named Desire” in what is mostly just a series of him climbing on different pieces of the stage or laying on the ground to writhe around on the floor while yelling bit of dialogue to the amusement of everyone, but the understanding of so few. Apparently, Greg saw something in this ability of Tommy's to put it all out there though, and approaches him after class to see if he might mind working on a scene with him. Tommy seems guarded when Greg first approaches him, surprised even that this individual wants anything to do with him, but it is in this moment where “The Disaster Artist” switches from a movie that began by allowing us to laugh at Tommy to a movie that shows us why this character deserves our empathy no matter how bizarre or weird he may initially come off as being. As both the director and lead character, Franco then follows the path of cementing this odd couple relationship between Greg and Tommy that, while initially difficult to understand, ultimately comes to serve as this genuine point of emotion where the two are open and honest with one another. This is no doubt the reason why it felt like the right time for Franco to work with his brother, Dave, as the two naturally have this connection and unspoken understanding of one another that is necessary to convince the audience this relationship between our two main characters is in fact authentic and not just Greg using Tommy for the seemingly unlimited amount of resources he possesses. As their relationship grows, Tommy and Greg move from San Francisco to Los Angeles in November of '98 where, within a few months, Greg is signed by the Iris Burton Agency (where Sharon Stone, in another great cameo, shows up as Burton) whereas Tommy simply struggles to hide his European accent in auditions. As Greg settles into life in L.A. and even gains a girlfriend in Amber (Dave Franco's real-life wife Alison Brie) he begins to realize things won't be as easy as it seemed as his agency calls infrequently and Tommy, despite his wealth, can't book a job for the life of him. It is at this point, forty minutes into the film, that Greg suggests they make their own movie-sending Tommy into a three-year spiral that eventually produces the script for “The Room.”
And while the set-up of the dynamic between these two characters and the struggles they face once arriving in Hollywood are interesting enough largely due to Franco's whirlwind performance as Wiseau the meat of the movie really comes into being when he and Greg begin pre-production on the movie. Quirks such as Tommy deciding to buy all the equipment to film the movie instead of just renting it from a company run by Hannibal Buress and Jason Mantzoukas as well as deciding to shoot simultaneously on both digital and film are just the beginning of the interesting facets that come to light in the latter half of the film. What really makes up the best aspects of “The Disaster Artist” though is Franco really selling the small details of the mysteries around Wiseau. No one really knows where Wiseau comes from or how he ended up in San Francisco though he will attest to being from Louisiana, "you know, the bayou", no one knows how old the guys are though he will claim to be Greg's age to Greg's concerned mother (Megan Mullally) who can clearly see the guy is in his late 30s to early 40s, and no one knows where he gets his money. There is one scene where the script supervisor Tommy has hired for his movie, Sandy (Seth Rogen), goes to the bank to cash his check and half expects the thing to bounce due to the general air of questions and mystery that surround Tommy, but the teller informs Sandy the account he's drawing from is essentially a bottomless pit. I must wonder if this detail was included in the book and to what extent the film embellishes as it almost seems too good to be true; too easy a route to go to avoid explaining how Tommy funded “The Room.” It is in these moments, when questions concerning any of these topics arise that Franco's Wiseau so effortlessly glides past them without a second that as to them coming back around time and time again. To this point, what is so strange about the whole situation is the way in which Tommy seems to be doing so much of it to help Greg and to allow him to achieve his own dreams of success and stardom. Whether money was an object or not there is something more, what many labels as "malevolent" in the movie, about Tommy's intentions. Franco and his writing duo of Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (“500 Days of Summer”) are keen to not lean too far into the sexualized component of the dynamic, but there is certainly an aspect here that indicates there is jealousy on Tommy's part when it comes to Greg. This is most obviously stated when Greg and his girlfriend decide to move in together, meaning Greg will move out of Tommy's place, but whether Tommy is attracted to Greg or it's more that Tommy is attracted to the idea of Greg and wants to be an All-American, good-looking guy like Greg is left up to the audience to decide.
That Franco and his team make the arc of this relationship the arc of the film though leaves us asking these questions and wondering how such a dynamic might ever end in a way that is reconcilable for both parties. Dave Franco presents Greg, who the audience is made well-aware is "in" on the understanding of how odd Wiseau is from the get-go, as this guy who is at first inspired by Tommy, but comes to more or less use the guy for his place in Los Angeles and his ability to produce this movie that offers him a steady paying gig while Tommy comes to terms with the fact that he feels everyone betrays him because of these very things: Tommy impresses with what he has and not who he is because he is unapologetically himself and while not self-aware, understands that people aren't necessarily taken with him. It's an interesting case of these two guys using one another to accomplish their own goals and being just tolerant enough of each other to make it through their day to day together. That this is the truth we come to at the end of the movie is the film's biggest downfall because “The Disaster Artist” wants us to believe that Tommy and Greg become best friends again and remain so through to the present day, but while this is likely the version of the story Franco and team had to agree to to get these people's life rights Franco and team are also sly enough to know they need to suggest something deeper. And whether this deeper understanding of this relationship at the core of “The Disaster Artist” will be claimed as intentional or not it is certainly there and gives the film this great dichotomy that is true of the real world as well when talking about how we present ourselves in public to meet the requirements of what feels acceptable as opposed to how we think, feel, and act in the privacy of our own home. Because movies are typically seen in large dark rooms with only a few other people surrounding you they feel safe and a space where our most private of thoughts and largest of inhibitions can be set free in a way that will serve little to no consequence, but to get to that point someone had to let those things go very publicly to create the product you see on screen. This is what Wiseau seemingly did with “The Room” and what Sestero did with the book “The Disaster Artist” is based on with the larger idea being that Franco's movie not only captures the surface-level story of the behind the scenes making-of for the "best worst movie ever made", but that it also hints at the real, genuine, and raw emotions that forced this product into existence. The fact Franco and his supporting cast that features the likes of Ari Graynor doing a spot-on Lisa, Josh Hutcherson nailing the Denny awkwardness, Zac Efron stealing every scene in which he appears to hilarious results, or Jacki Weaver tenderly talking about her love for acting as the woman who played Claudette re-enacting these infamous scenes is only gravy on top of all the fascinating, weird, and consistently funny things “The Disaster Artist” chronicles and offers.