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Film review: The Disaster Artist

I walked out of The Disaster Artist disappointed. While I’ve been a fan of The Room for years—I’ve even met Tommy Wiseau himself at Landmark Sunshine’s (RIP) infamous participatory screenings—I had only just recently read Greg Sestero’s memoir of working on Wiseau’s magnum opus upon which The Disaster Artist is based. It lay fresh in my mind, and I couldn’t help but make comparisons and see all of the ways the film adaptation was lacking. Sestero’s book is hilarious, full of dry wit and sharp humor—but it’s also a surprisingly poignant and sincere story of Sestero and Wiseau’s strange friendship, and their shared struggle of achieving stardom and grasping at their own piece of the American Dream. Like all relationships, theirs is layered and complex, and the book meticulously details these nuances.

The Disaster Artist is meant to be a film that hinges almost entirely on its protagonist, but James Franco is no great character actor (the man was never exactly compared to Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his portrayal of Wiseau borders on cheap caricature, too weak to carry the film the way he’s meant. It’s not for lack of trying either—although Franco seems to have earnestly studied Wiseau and his (for lack of a better word) unique mannerisms, it all comes across as a gross appropriation—like the deeply affected voice that surfaces as an almost whine, or the overly cinematic hair flips. The verisimilitude is paper thin.

Dave Franco’s Greg is all wrong too—too earnest, too nervous, too eager to please. And why, exactly, did Franco choose a-little-more-than-slightly homoerotic storyline where Tommy becomes jealous of Greg’s girlfriend? In the book/real life, this was more a mutual dislike. I’m not sure why Franco was convinced this embellishment would be a worthy addition, especially when Greg is played by his own brother. Really makes ya think.

Linearly, the movie is all over the place—each scene feels abridged, giving the impression they were cut down in order to fit in the entertaining but ultimately superfluous scene-by-scene remake at the end of the film. The fourth-wall-breaking, behind-the-scenes look at film-making is far too rushed to be much fun at all. The film is laden with unnecessary celebrity cameos—you know things are bad when a Bryan Cranston appearance feels extraneous rather than welcome. But that’s overall what The Disaster Artist is—a self-serving vanity project for Franco and his pals, who capitalize on Wiseau’s tiny, but hard-won, kingdom.

Most of all, Sestero’s book is an honest and humane portrait of the widely mocked and deeply misunderstood Wiseau, while maintaining just enough of the mystery he insists upon. And this central element is what the film adaptation sorely lacks., which is to say it’s missing a heartbeat. Although Sestero never confirms the truth of Tommy’s origins and fortune, there is speculation in his book, and the film barely even does that. We do not know Franco’s Wiseau any better by the end of the film; we are not brought from point A to B. What is meant to be a homage—and what was surely pitched as one—comes across as exploitative (Franco’s now infamous microphone snatch from Wiseau at the Golden Globes is further evidence of this.)

When I first saw The Disaster Artist that night, I was surprised to see the theater mostly populated by older couples, seemingly out on date night. I thought it would garner its audience mainly from the cult fandom of The Room so I couldn’t help but wonder what they thought they were walking into—what exact appeal did the film hold for them? But even if this detached audience represents the same one that’s showering the film with accolades in awards season, I’m still curious as to why: taken at face value, The Disaster Artist offers even less to its viewers.

The elephant in the room seems to be that James Franco is the man Tommy Wiseau wishes he could be—handsome and successful, in the broadest sense of the terms. But I think the inverse is even more true—Franco wishes he could be as genuinely eccentric as Wiseau, and that he could create something with a cultural legacy that stands the test of any amount of time.

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