James Franco’s ‘The Disaster Artist’ succeeds as a movie-about-a-movie

November 28, 2017

James Franco’s ‘The Disaster Artist’ succeeds as a movie-about-a-movie

CLEVELAND, Ohio - Movies about movies are nothing new, as Hollywood seems to revel in examining the filmmaking process and give itself props for how creative and important it is. But few films offer a truly reflective and affecting glimpse behind the scenes as James Franco’s “The Disaster Artist.”

The movie, which Franco directed and stars, hits theaters this weekend. It follows the making of Tommy Wiseau’s 2003 trash-cinema masterpiece, “The Room,” which is widely considered the worst movie ever made but has inexplicably gained a cult following a frequently sells out showings more than a decade after its release.

The film bases its story loosely on the nonfiction book of the same name written by “The Room” co-star Greg Sestero and revolves around the friendship between Sestero (portrayed by Dave Franco) and cinematic auteur Tommy Wiseau (played brilliantly by Dave’s brother James Franco).

Their journey to midnight-cinema infamy begins when they meet through an acting class in the early 2000s. Sestero is impressed with Wiseau’s fearlessness (although curiously not his talent) and the duo strike up a fast friendship.

The acting pair develop a curious relationship. Sestero is a teenager when they meet and Wiseau is quite clearly middle-aged. But they’re drawn together by their loyalty toward one another, their dedication to their craft and their willingness to do whatever it takes to make it in Hollywood’s cutthroat environment.

Following repeated rejection in Tinseltown, Wiseau decides to write and direct his own movie, funded by a mysterious bank account described as a “bottomless pit.”

“The Disaster Artist” is officially a comedy, and certainly succeeds in that role. The audience couldn’t stop laughing during an advanced screening earlier this month at the Cedar-Lee Theatre in Cleveland Heights and it earned a standing ovation at its first screening at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin.

But the film’s real accomplishment is its sensitive look at the painstaking work required to take a film from the drawing board to the silver screen.

The movie dedicates a disproportionate amount of time to the normally mundane details of moviemaking, such as renting cameras and studio space and auditioning actors. These moments are delightfully entertaining thanks to Wiseau’s personality quirks. He seems to have little understanding of social mores or how human beings interact with one another. They are also enlivened by the rapport between Sestero and his eccentric filmmaking partner.

Wiseau’s origins remain something of a mystery. He variously claims to have lived in France, New Orleans and Strasbourg, but employs a perplexing accent that sounds vaguely Eastern European. A 2016 documentary claims that he’s from Poland, but he keeps his early life concealed in a shroud of secrecy. Wiseau owns several rental properties, but those close to him say those properties fall short of explaining the millions of dollars he procured to fund “The Room,” making the source of his wealth a riddle that remains frustratingly unsolved.

But his character quirks are what keep “The Disaster Artist” entertaining, even as it takes a deep dive into the aspects of filmmaking that usually remain hidden from casual moviegoers.

For example, prior to the filming of a lovemaking session, Wiseau wears a modesty pouch, which actors use to cover their genitals during particularly intimate scenes.

It’s the auteur’s outlandishness and highly unorthodox stage presence -- he needs to show his butt to sell the movie and doesn’t seem to understand where a woman’s vagina is -- that keep the audience interested as the story dives into the minutiae of a movie set.

The source material - which was co-written by journalist and film critic Tom Bissell - ends with Sestero ruminating on the problematic nature of Wiseau’s unflinching devotion to a singular vision at the expense of everything (and everyone) else.

The movie takes a different track. It makes no secret of secret of Wiseau’s incompetence, take-no-prisoners attitude toward filmmaking and inability to handle constructive criticism. But it doesn’t go nearly as far in describing the auteur’s monumental struggle with his cast and crew. Wiseau frequently replaced actors and crew throughout filming of “The Room.” He was also suspiciously jealous of Sestero when his friend secured acting roles, and those two aspects of the book are only mentioned briefly in the film version of “The Disaster Artist.”

The film instead uses the complicated but largely affectionate relationship between Sestero and Wiseau as a backdrop as it explores the genesis of a famous movie, resulting in a much more touching tribute to Hollywood’s creative process.

It’s hard to say if Franco made the right decision by shying away from Wiseau’s less endearing character traits. The two have frequently appeared together promoting “The Disaster Artist” and have developed a chummy relationship. But his project resulted in a wildly entertaining jaunt into the strange and wonderful world of independent filmmaking, and it’s difficult to argue with that result.