You often hear the phrase “brought down the house” tossed a lot when people talk about premiere screenings, but you rarely get to witness it or even agree with people who eagerly assign the film that laudatory label. It’s been three days since James Franco’s The Disaster Artist premiered at SXSW, but it is easily one of the best festival screening experiences I’ve ever had. It didn’t just bring down the house; it sent them back out into the streets dancing with giant, gleeful grins plastered onto their faces.
The Disaster Artist depicts the events surrounding the birth of The Room, one of the most infamous movies of all time. Franco stars as Tommy Wiseau, the eccentric and mysterious madman who wrote, directed, and self-financed the film that now possesses an unintended cult status as one of the best-worst movies ever made.
The multilayered accomplishments that James Franco has mastered with his latest and arguably most accessible directorial effort seem to know no bounds. The Disaster Artist is the perfect fusion of a terrific and layered script, excellent and emotional performances, and an exceptionally assured directorial vision. The Disaster Artist never feels like it is cheaply recreating events in a halfhearted attempt to cash in on a cultural phenomenon. Instead, this is an unforgettable movie about the creative process that is destined to become a classic.
The Disaster Artist is the perfect fusion of a terrific and layered script, excellent and emotional performances, and an exceptionally assured directorial vision.
As an actor, Franco disappears into his role as the tall, long-haired aspiring actor with an indistinguishable accent who just wants to turn his burning dream of being an actor into a beautiful reality. Franco’s performance is spot-on impersonation, though I fear using that term minimalizes what he has accomplished here. James Franco is Tommy Wiseau, getting his mannerisms, voice, and entire essence of being down in a way that recalls Daniel Day Lewis. No, I’m not exaggerating. He makes the appeal of Wiseau tangible and real while also not shying away from portraying his less likable and more frustrating attributes.
As a director, Franco strikes a perfect balance between comedy and heart. The Disaster Artist has many comedic moments, but it isn’t trying to poke fun at its subject. In fact, the film goes out of its way to portray the ways in which the mocking of his art hurts Tommy. Franco is able to provide a subjective look at his story and characters, something the character he is playing probably wouldn’t be able to accomplish. The result is one of the best examinations of the creative process ever put to the silver screen, one that works despite how familiar you are with the mythology of The Room.
The Disaster Artist will please die-hard fans of Wiseau and his opus, as Franco goes out of his way to intricately recreate the film frame by frame, as highlighted in a side-by-side comparison at the end of the film. That incredible, commendable dedication helps the film avoid being saddled with a pulpy, movie-of-the-week vibe. Painstakingly accurate recreations notwithstanding, The Disaster Artist ultimately transcends being a small-scale tale about an obscure event by tackling broader themes of friendship, dreams, and sense of self.
With that in mind, it’s easy to see why the screenplay (credited to Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Webber) was so appealing to the likes of James Franco, Seth Rogen, and Evan Goldberg. They’ve been making movies about these themes their entire life, which would account for the fact that, like so many of their other movies, The Disaster Artist packs a surprisingly emotional punch. It also accounts for the film’s insane supporting cast, which is one of the best ensembles the medium has seen in years. Seth Rogen, Zach Efron, Alison Brie, Melanie Griffith, Sharon Stone, Judd Apatow, Hannibal Buress, Jacki weaver and countless others weave in and out of the story as various important pieces in the puzzle. This is a movie about show business, and the never-ending list of celebrities on this film’s roster makes sure to nail that point home and also adds a layer to surreal zaniness on display.
At the center of it all is Dave Franco’s Greg Sestero, Tommy’s best friend and costar. The relationship between Greg and Tommy is ultimately the heart of the film, and these two knock it out of the part. It’s never really weird watching two brothers play characters who aren’t related to each other, but some surreal combination of knowing the two are real-life brothers and the chemistry that the two share help amplify the themes films of brotherhood. The bond between these two dreamers feels real and unforced, making the conflict that ensues between them bite even more.
Painstakingly accurate recreations notwithstanding, The Disaster Artist ultimately transcends being a small-scale tale about an obscure event by tackling broader themes of friendship, dreams, and sense of self.
The cut of The Disaster Artist shown at SXSW was described as a “work in progress,” so I’ll hold off my final verdict until I see the film again. I do think the film could be trimmed a bit tighter, and some scenes that repeat information we already know could be taken out. I’m sure by the time it hits theaters (a release date has yet to be set) that the film will be better polished. That isn’t to say that there’s a single bad scene in the film. As I mentioned earlier, this is one of the best movie-watching experiences I’ve ever had, festival-set or otherwise. I’m curious to see how this plays with a wider audience, particularly to those unfamiliar with the film’s subject.
Obviously, not everyone will have the added benefit of having Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero present with them in the audience. Both were present at the film’s SXSW premiere, which made some of the films more emotional and painful moments play out in interesting ways. Will Tommy’s teary-eyed reactions to witnessing his passion project be met with laughter elicit the same sympathy from screenings he isn’t able to attend? I think that Franco has done such a great job that his movie will be able to speak for itself. Regardless of how others see the movie, I have little doubt in my mind that The Disaster Artist will stand the test of time as one of the best movies about art ever made.