Tuesday, July 31, 2018

There, But for the Grace of God: The Disaster Artist (2017)

James Franco as Tommy Wiseau in The Disaster Artist. (Photo: IMDB)

The Disaster Artist (2017) is the story behind The Room (2003), that perennial frontrunner in the race for worst film ever made. Based on the eponymous memoir, it stars James Franco in a Golden Globe-winning turn as eccentric and enigmatic filmmaker Tommy Wiseau, with Dave Franco playing his best friend, Greg Sestero. The Room is a project of love, however incompetent, so the story begins when Greg chats up Tommy after acting class, where Tommy has presented a scene from A Streetcar Named Desire. Greg wants to get tips on how to project competence -- it turns out the key is not to give a fuck. The first third of The Disaster Artist is the story of this budding friendship, culminating in the desire to write and make a film without having the first idea of how to go about it. The second act is the actual shooting of The Room, infamously written, directed, produced, marketed by, and starring Tommy Wiseau. And the last third details the friends' falling out as a result of Tommy's paranoia and other qualities that make him generally hard to get along with, ending with their eventual reconciliation over the release of the picture -- not as the drama Tommy envisioned but as the inadvertent cult comedy we all know and love-hate today. Between the film proper and the end credits are a series of side-by-side comparison shots of The Room and its recreation in The Disaster Artist, and the similarities are uncanny.
Nick Allen over at the Roger Ebert website faults the movie for not delving into Tommy's psyche. Judging from the promotional materials, I expected nothing of the kind. I thought it would be about this guy who shouldn’t succeed but finds himself doing so regardless, and that’s exactly what we get. The PR framing of the film seemed to imply that it's about a dream come true, but that only serves to heighten the contrast between the premise that The Room was never meant to be, and the fact that it actually, ridiculously exists. It’s a total and absolute farce, from the very first scene, when Tommy scales the walls of the acting studio screaming, “Stella,” to the very last of the comparison shots. The scene that got the biggest audience reaction when I saw it is the one where Wiseau, wearing his actor's hat, fails to complete a scene even after sixty-seven takes. If we take the movie as a farcical tale, such a reaction is well-deserved. The problem is that these are real-life events; people actually listened to this guy and let him make The Room.  That’s not as innocuous as it sounds.

There's a dark underside left unexplored, which benefits the film’s silly, farcical tone, since exploring that darkness would have turned it into a docudrama. Tommy’s inconsiderate, even abusive, treatment of The Room actresses Juliette Danielle (Ari Graynor, playing the character of Lisa) and Carolyn Minott (Jacki Weaver, playing the character of Claudette) are the glaring examples, but there are warning signs galore: Tommy’s lack of trust and repeated accusations of betrayal, the fact that he has his own personal toilet right on the set, and – most emblematic – his belief that, since he’s the one forking over the money, everyone should obey him without question. Helping Wiseau make a film and (possibly) turning him into a star is therefore not just trying to realize some eccentric guy's dream. It’s boosting the influence of a frankly unsavory character. Siddhant Adlakha’s piece on the cult status of The Room shows how this moral problem has blighted the cult film and evolves year after year in how the audience interacts with it, sort of a snarky version of The Rocky Horror Picture Show sans singing and dancing. 

The cast of The Disaster Artist as the crew of The Room. (Photo: IMDB)

The actual making of The Room saw an extremely high turnover rate for crew and even cast, but in The Disaster Artist everyone stays on board, despite the fact that nobody but Wiseau is comfortable with the situation, not even Greg. DP Raphael Smadja (Paul Scheer) almost leaves, but everyone else basically says, “Fuck it” and shows up to work every day, an attitude best demonstrated by script supervisor/de facto director Sandy Schklair (well portrayed by Seth Rogen). Rogen may have been drawing on pesonal experience, as he reportedly took the same attitude when dealing with Franco, who directed The Disaster Artist in character as the director of The Room. As you can imagine, being in a film where the chameleon-like James Franco directs a movie while playing said movie's director and star would lead to some confusion on set. Why don’t they leave? Money.

That’s why this film reminds me of The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). Both are real-life stories about morally dubious men who turn money into power (albeit at different scales) and use that same money to turn what should by all rights be a crash-and-burn project into one that makes a feather-light landing. The main difference is that, whereas the straightforward depiction of events in Wolf horrifies us (at least those of us who aren’t Wall Street douchebags) while making us examine our secretly desiring to be in Jordan Belfort’s shoes, the decision to film Disaster as a comedy relegates the characters’ moral objections to fodder for the funnies. Showing how inept Tommy is at sex scenes (and possibly sex in general) is supposed to explain the body shaming of Danielle and make it funny; having DP Smadja rebelliously use the personal toilet Tommy has installed in the middle of the set somehow excuses the fact that he has imposed that toilet (with no visible wash basin, I might add) on everyone who crosses that set; and the empathetic and humanizing characterization of Tommy by Robyn Paris (June Diana Raphael, playing the character of Michelle) supposedly alleviates the atmosphere of his paranoia and trust issues. The problem is, none of these things really resolves its respective issues, instead merely papering them over. What’s saddest about this situation is that it’s the nagging possibility this could all very well happen – and has happened – that makes this farce work. Farce is, after all, the art of the implausibly possible.

The film has been compared to The Master (2012), but The Disaster Artist isn't not the charisma; it’s about the money. And all of us in this capitalist society could use a little more of that.

– CJ Sheu is a PhD student of contemporary American fiction at National Taiwan Normal University, in Taipei. He also writes about films and film reviews on the side, and has been published in Bright Wall/Dark Room and Funscreen (Taiwan). Check out his blog, or hit him up on Twitter @cjthereviewer.

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