Bright Lights Film Journal

James Franco’s The Disaster Artist: Hollywood Caught in the Act of Kissing Its Own Ass

Dave Franco and James Franco in The Disaster Artist. Photo courtesy of A24

“Hollywood oddballs are like everything else in Hollywood. Don’t look too close.”

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Greg Sestero’s now reasonably famous book The Disaster Artist, co-written by Tom Bissell, is much better than producer/director/star James Franco’s quite famous movie The Disaster Artist, each telling the story of the making of Tommy Wiseau’s all-conquering cult classic, The Room. Book beats film! Book beats film! Book beats film!

Well, not necessarily, but the supposedly non-commercial Franco1 has taken a remarkable piece of material, the only in La La Land partnership of Tommy and Greg (played by James Franco and his brother Dave), and turned it into an unremarkable piece of Hollywood schmaltz, though it’s still pretty funny. Because anyone who could make an unfunny film about Tommy Wiseau would be – okay, I’ll go for it – would be less talented than Tommy Wiseau.

For Hollywood winners like Franco – and virtually anyone else who’s really “in the business” – both Sestero and Wiseau are “touching” – or would be touching if The Room had never reached the screen and, almost as important, if The Disaster Artist had never been written. If these things had not happened, Greg and Tommy would have stumbled through Hollywood like a latter-day George and Lennie,2, so not getting it – Tommy the gigantic, misunderstood genius whose problem is that everyone does understand him, understands that he has utterly no talent, and Greg the buff, vacuous pretty boy whose career peaks when he gets the lead in Retro Puppet Master – shot in Romania, direct to video and seventh in the series – an actor so bad and so unknown that he can’t even be used as a punchline. “Gary Busey called. He wants his je ne sais quoi back”? Funny! “Greg Sestero called. He wants his je ne sais quoi back”? Say what?

The real Tommy Wiseau, with Greg Sestero, in The Room

No one of any importance would have known either man, but they all would have known “a Tommy Wiseau,” “a Greg Sestero,” that pathetic kid in acting class who would never shut up, who woke up every morning thinking “next year I’ll be a star!”, who never realized how achingly terrible he was, how utterly unsuited for the Hollywood shark tank, who never got eaten because he was never worth the eating.

Franco’s film gets about half of that, in particular when we see Tommy and Greg genuflecting at the scene of James Dean’s death. Dean is their Christ. He suffered for them! He died for them! Through His death they are transfigured! They must suffer as He did, and if they do, if they suffer as Christ, they will become as Christ, or rather, as James Dean. They will become stars! They will move others as He moved them! But only if they are worthy! Only if they dedicate their lives to the holy craft of acting!3

James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause

And so they did, and so The Room did get made, thanks both to Wiseau’s bizarrely bottomless bank account and his bizarrely bottomless ambition to make a film – the story of an utterly good man surrounded by betrayers and ultimately crucified by them4 – which overcame even his almost bottomless ability to sabotage every aspect of his life, constantly driving people away with his naïve, unrestrained egotism but pulling them back in with his naïve, unrestrained neediness – and his naïve, unrestrained bank account.5

As I say, Franco gets about half of this, but he constantly interlards it with self-congratulatory Hollywood schmaltz. There’s an utterly gratuitous bit when one of the actresses asks the old lady playing Lisa’s mother why she gets up at five in the morning and drives across town so that she can spend hours waiting for Tommy to show up. “Because the worst day on a movie set is better than the best day not on a movie set,” she says, and everyone sighs in agreement. We’re making a movie! We’re in heaven! We are the stuff that dreams are made of! We are our dreams!6

From the film’s official website.

It gets worse, naturally, at the premiere of The Room. In “real life,” as Franco tells us via text, The Room cleared $1,800 over a showing that lasted two weeks (Tommy paid to keep the film in the theater for two weeks so that it would qualify for the Academy Awards), which means an average audience of about 50 a day, though Tommy paid for a full house for the premiere.

Rather remarkably, Sestero doesn’t tell us how the premiere went, but Franco isn’t so shy. He shows us the crowd roaring in delight at the film’s badness, though in real life, since they had been paid to be there, one can wonder if that’s what happened. But Franco isn’t interested in what happened in real life. He’s channeling Hollywood’s vision of itself – as shown, for example, in Sullivan’s Travels, Preston Sturges’ tongue-in-cheek take on the “genius” Hollywood director who wants to “make a statement” only to discover, while watching a rapt audience dissolve into happiness while watching a “Pluto” cartoon, that what counts is helping people forget their troubles. We make people happy, gosh darn it! And that’s a pretty gosh darn good thing to do!7

Of course, Tommy’s not pleased to see the crowd laughing at his own crucifixion – that’s me up there on the cross, goddamn it! – but Greg rather remarkably, and unconvincingly, talks him down. They love it, Tommy! They love your film! You’re a star now, big boy, and everybody knows it! So go out there and enjoy it! And so, of course, the film ends with a delighted Tommy standing up there and proudly acknowledging the crowd’s standing ovation.8

The conclusion of The Disaster Artist is reminiscent of that of several other biopics of showbiz outsiders, Tim Burton’s Ed Wood and Miloš Forman’s tribute to Andy Kaufman, Man on the Moon. Ed Wood, of course, is long dead, and so are the people who knew him. Tommy Wiseau, and his friends, are all very much alive. But Andy was dead when Man on the Moon was made, while those who knew him were living. Andy, unlike both Ed and Tommy, was talented – his early reading of The Great Gatsby was one of the greatest bits I’ve ever seen – but everyone who knew him, it seems, hated him. Yeah, Hollywood loves its oddballs. But, you know, Hollywood oddballs are like everything else in Hollywood. Don’t look too close.

Seth Rogen and James Franco on the set of The Disaster Artist. Photo courtesy of A24

Afterwords

Woody Allen, not often accused of sentimentality, except about himself, pays tribute, in Broadway Danny Rose, to showbiz losers, those sweetly but completely untalented misfits he met on the way up. Much of BDR is very funny, but Woody naturally has to “explain” to us at the end that all women are lying, betraying sluts – um, sort of like the message of The Room. Rent BDR and stop watching about ten minutes from the end. You’ll enjoy it much more.

See the movies, read the book

Half the fun of The Disaster Artist is the lovingly recreated bad scenes from The Room, so why not just cut to the chase and see The Room itself? Also, read the book! Sestero may look like an original cast member of The Real Poolboys of Beverly Hills, but his book gives a remarkable portrait of a man whose longing to express his passion was at once utterly false and utterly real, a real-life Don Quixote who drew Greg’s Sancho Panza along in a mixture of both admiration and pity.9 There’s so much in the book that it should have been a mini-series, six to ten hours, to allow audiences to really marinate in Tommy’s manifold weirdnesses, though, of course, the real story of Tommy’s weirdnesses would not always be funny. As Sestero tells it, for both Greg and Tommy, the “key” film for interpreting Tommy’s life is not Rebel Without a Cause but Anthony Minghella’s 1999 adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s ode to a homicidal shape-shifter, The Talented Mr. Ripley.

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Note: This review is reprinted from the author’s brilliant blog devoted to movies, jazz, and politics, Literature R Us (link in bio below).

  1. Franco has directed short films and presented a variety of multimedia projects, including “Collage,” featuring live dance, theater, music, and poetry. He directed a 90-minute documentary on the early-20th-century American poet Hart Crane, which I haven’t seen. He’s published a book of short stories, has exhibited “installations” at art museums, has done just about anything and everything guaranteed not to turn a buck. []
  2. Dunno if kids still have to read Of Mice and Men. Wiseau is an interesting combination of George and Lennie, both monster and mastermind. Fortunately, Greg never had to blow Tommy’s brains out. []
  3. The “center” of The Room comes when Johnny/Tommy cries out “You’re tearing me apart!” in explicit homage to Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. []
  4. Tommy’s arms outstretched death scene is clearly intended as such, though Franco doesn’t emphasize it. []
  5. Particularly touching is Sestero’s description of the famous rooftop scene that Tommy keeps bungling over and over again. He reaches out desperately to Greg for support. His whole life has been leading up to this point! If he can’t nail this scene, it were better he had never been born! Miraculously (as Sestero tells it), Greg saves him! “Thanks, man! I owe you! [beat] Your check bounced? You think I’m Santa Claus? Hey, bro! Go fuck a reindeer!” [Laughs] []
  6. Anyone who’s read “the making of” accounts of classic films, ranging from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (unpaid cast and crew sweating through 14-hour days in the Texas sun while the one actress with tits sits in an air-conditioned limo) to Apocalypse Now (unpaid extras and crew starving amidst filth while enduring tropical monsoons) can doubt this. A lot of people got fired by Tommy and one can wonder if they ever got paid. Of course, anyone connected with a “classic shoot” will want to tell stories, but are the stories true? Truth in Hollywood? Say what? []
  7. Other nits I’d like to pick: Franco’s use of stirring, “Chariots of Fire” music whenever Greg and Tommy talk about their dreams. You don’t have to tell us they’re talking about their dreams, Jim! We can hear the dialogue! Also, some “star” prerogatives: In the book, it’s Greg who suggests driving to the site of James Dean’s fatal crash. In the movie, it’s Tommy. Also, Tommy does all the driving, though in the book it’s almost always Greg at the wheel, with Tommy, a handkerchief over his face, zonked out in the passenger seat. []
  8. Lots of films show the leads receiving a standing ovation. I’ve never believed in any of them. []
  9. However irrational it is – and Greg can see how irrational it is – Tommy’s boundless self-confidence always energizes Greg. Hey, maybe I can make it after all! And when Tommy’s self-confidence flags, Greg panics. Say it ain’t so, Tommy! Say it ain’t so! []